Three years ago when running for office for the first time, one of the things I campaigned on was the need to build a new elementary school. Like anyone who was paying attention, I knew all too well the many problems with the Winter Hill School building at 115 Sycamore, and I was alarmed at the lack of urgency in pushing ahead with that new school construction.
So when a chunk of the ceiling fell in a stairwell and the school building was closed last June, I was dismayed that our failure as a City to move forward meaningfully on something we knew was a potential ticking time bomb and definitely creating an unacceptable environment for learning had led to this. I regretted not talking more -- and more loudly -- about the need to address a school building clearly beyond the end of its useful life and prioritize the construction of a new school in the Capital Investment Plan. And while I felt like I had worked on this, I still apologized to the WHCIS community for City's inaction, because I'm a part of the municipal government that failed them and I believe in accountability.
In the immediate aftermath of the building closure, City and Somerville Public Schools (SPS) staff moved quickly to find a temporary home for the final days of the school year at Tufts University, who were great about providing a temporary space for WHCIS. And then over the summer the City and contractors moved heaven and earth in a very short time window to get the Edgerly School in East Somerville set up to host Winter Hill in exile. The Winter Hill @ Edgerly (or "WHEdge" as some Wildcat families are calling it) isn't without its problems and shortcomings as a space. But SPS and the City are working on the issues that have arisen in an effort to make it the best home possible while we determine the safety of the Winter Hill School building at 115 Sycamore and try to break the land speed record for constructing a new school.
In community meetings and my interactions with the WHCIS community, it's clear there is understandable anger. The City gambled that their school building could hold up a little while longer to make things more optimal financially as we went about renovating and replacing our many crumbling municipal building. But luck was not on our side, and the City -- and especially the WHCIS community -- lost. Badly.
Fortunately, in the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), we seem to have an eager partner. Everything I hear is that the MSBA has been great to work with so far, and I'm hopeful that we continue to build a strong relationship with a key partner in the process of building a new school. It's critical for our long-term capital investment planning that we get funding from the MSBA -- as we did with the new high school -- to pay for a large chunk of the costs involved in building a new school.
On December 19, SPS hosted a K-8 Capacity Plan Community Meeting at the high school. The lecture hall was at capacity for a presentation that went through the data gathered and laid out five options for addressing our two school buildings in need of renovation or replacement: the WHCIS and the Benjamin Brown School. And in the last two weeks there were follow-up school-specific community meetings with both the Brown School and WHCIS communities, with a goal of gathering feedback on the options from the school communities impacted.
Those five options are:
- Option 1A: Construct a new WHCIS building with an expanded footprint at 115 Sycamore & renovate and expand the Brown School building at the current site
- Option 1B: Construct a new WHCIS building with an expanded footprint at 115 Sycamore & construct a new Brown School building on the current site of the Kennedy School schoolyard, with the two schools sharing cafeteria and gymnasium spaces
- Option 2: Construct a new four-story school building with an expanded footprint at 115 Sycamore
- Option 3: Renovate the existing WHCIS building and add a four-story addition to the north on the site of the upper-most level of the schoolyard at 115 Sycamore
- Option 4: Construct a new four-story school building on the current site of the softball field at Trum Field
One of the key next steps in the MSBA funding application process will be forming a school building committee. This committee will be responsible for weighing up all the factors involved in the five options, then selecting one of the five. Then we will know the plan and can move forward with it.
I'm hopeful this also will provide the clarity the School Committee has rightfully been demanding from the City before releasing the 1895 Building. (The 1895 Building is the terra cotta-looking former part of the old high school building, overlooking Reavis Field and next to City Hall.) It's a key part of much-overdue plans to renovate our crumbling City Hall and create a Central Hill campus for municipal government with adequate space for City employees.
One major hurdle that will need to be cleared regardless of how we move forward is getting Somerville voters to approve a ballot measure authorizing an override of Proposition 2.5. This ballot measure would exclude the borrowing necessary to fund the construction of this new school from the state law that limits municipalities to a 2.5-percent annual increase to our tax levy (with new growth exempted). This is the same process we went through successfully to fund the new high school when voters overwhelmingly approved a debt exclusion in the 2016 election. It will require an effective campaign to convince voters to vote Yes. I've previously committed to doing my part for that ballot measure campaign, and I'm optimistic that with effective messaging and a lot of campaign volunteers we can make our case effectively to the electorate.
In the meantime, keeping the public updated about the dual planning and MSBA funding processes will be key for the City and SPS administrations and City staff. There's an extremely high level of anxiety in both school communities impacted by this, so ensuring everyone knows what is happening and what's coming up will be hugely important.
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