Last Thursday news broke that a large piece of concrete had fallen from the ceiling inside the Winter Hill Community Innovation School, and that the school building would be closed. I would say this was a shock, but it's not surprising to anyone who's been paying attention. The awful condition of that building has been well documented. I called for the construction of a new school back during the 2021 campaign, and toured the current building last summer to see the issues up close after Winter Hill educators came and spoke to the City Council about the conditions they've been teaching in for years.
The Winter Hill community is understandably furious after their students were unable to go to school in their building for the second time in past three years, and there's plenty of blame to go around. The City gambled that the current building could make it a little bit longer to allow a more optimal timeline for constructing a new school. And the Winter Hill community lost. Badly. We as a municipal government owe the entire WHCIS community an apology.
So where do we go from here?
We need transparency. As speaker after speaker made clear at Monday night's public hearing on the proposed FY 2024 budget and Tuesday night's WHCIS community meeting, the trust between the WHCIS community and their local government has been broken. There are monumental decisions ahead for the Winter Hill. The superintendent, School Committee chair, a City Council representative, a Winter Hill teacher representative, and a Winter Hill families representative all need to be at the table for those conversations.
Better communication in needed. Building a new school is a complex and years-long ordeal. We need the Administration to clearly map out that process and explain key decisions that need to be made. It's imperative that the Winter Hill community fully understands what is happening and what needs to happen here.
We need to know the facts. State law requires competitive bids for the work of looking at the current building to determine its true condition. We don't have time for that, so we need a waiver from the state to get an engineer into that school right away to give it a rigorous examination. With the first day of the 2023/24 school year just 84 days away, we really need that report this month.
The community needs to have input. The report on the current building should be released to the public and there should be a hybrid (in person with a remote participation option) WHCIS community meeting to go over that report, complete with a Q&A. And then schooling options for the 2023/24 school year and beyond should be presented to the Winter Hill community for discussion and feedback. Explore the pros and cons of returning to the current building for the time being -- assuming it's even a candidate to re-open after repairs -- against the option of relocation to other locations like the Edgerly, Cummings, and soon-to-close Matignon.
We need a commitment. I call on the Administration to commit to getting a Proposition 2.5 override ballot question before voters in the November 2024 election. Yes, this is a compressed timeline for a ballot question, but 2024 is ideal for these sorts of questions since it's a presidential election year, and this commitment to a ballot question will force the City to quickly come up with an actual plan to pitch to voters. I believe the voters of Somerville will rise to the occasion and approve the measure, and I will pledge to campaign for this ballot question. But we should be prepared for any outcome at the polls. If it turns out we need to go forward without a debt exclusion, then we need to do that.
Go for MSBA funding. Thankfully, the District and the City submitted applications to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) earlier this year. Decisions on recipients of MSBA funding should happen later this year. In the meantime, we need to be building relationships with key figures at the MSBA and making sure they fully understand our situation here. Given the headlines about this catastrophe, I expect our application will garner a lot of sympathy from the MSBA. Most of their applications only talk about potential loss of accreditation due to building conditions. The Winter Hill is actually closed. But again we need to be prepared to move ahead with building a new school with or without MSBA funding.
We must expedite the process wherever possible. It might ultimately cost us more to pick up the tab ourselves on things like the feasibility study or some of the design and planning work. We need to be okay with that at this point. We have to be creative with how we do the many procedural things required, and do them concurrently whenever possible. We can't let things like a debt exclusion ballot question and possible MSBA funding slow down the process. We can proceed with the hope these will happen but no expectation that we'll get one or both, and be prepared to bond out full cost ourselves. There's a request for funding for the feasibility study coming before the City Council on Thursday night, and we need to start that process of determining the site and details of this new school and right away.
The goal here must be to get a new school built as quickly as possible while doing right by the WHCIS community in the meantime. At this moment we need our municipal government to be nimble, creative, and determined to make this happen. The City Council has heard from a number of folks in the community about the so-called Nuclear Option here: a vote to reject the proposed FY 2024 budget. Such a move would be an absolute last resort given the chaos and damage this would cause in our city. But I'm watching very closely to see how the Administration is handling this, and as far as I'm concerned all options are on the table.
And now some additional things I'd like to highlight:
The Mayor presented her proposed FY 2024 (July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024) budget to the City Council on Thursday, July 1. This formally kicked off Budget Season -- a three-week scramble for the City Council to review and potentially make cuts to that budget ahead of an anticipated vote on approving the revised budget on Thursday, June 22. It's a frantic stretch of poring over the budget book and holding long meetings with department and division heads. As the chair of the Finance Committee, we take our duties extremely seriously and I am continually impressed by the rigor and thoughtfulness my colleagues bring the job.
Here is the remaining schedule for Budget Season:
- Departmental Budget Hearings: Wednesday, June 7 @ 6 PM (Zoom)
- Departmental Budget Hearings: Tuesday, June 13 @ 6 PM (Zoom)
- Departmental Budget Hearings: Wednesday, June 14 @ 6 PM (Zoom)
- Public Safety Night: Thursday, June 15 @ 6:30 PM (City Hall & Zoom)
- Departmental Budget Hearings: Tuesday, June 20 @ 6 PM (Zoom)
- Cut Night: Wednesday, June 21 @ 6:30 PM (City Hall & Zoom)
- City Council Regular Meeting (Vote on FY 2024 Budget): Thursday, June 22 @ 7 PM (City Hall & Zoom)
Information on these meetings -- including agendas and links to watch -- can be found in Legistar here.
You can view the FY 2024 budget book here. We welcome public comment on the budget, having held a public hearing on Monday evening. That public hearing will remain open until noon on Wednesday, June 21, and you can email comments to [email protected]. These comments from the public all will be shared with the entire council and entered into the public record.
Proposed Water & Sewer Rates Update
Following the City Council Finance Committee's vote on May 23 to not recommend approval of the proposed FY 2024 water & sewer rates, the Administration has returned with a revised proposal. This updated proposal calls for an 11-percent increase in water volumetric charges and a 13.5-percent increase in sewer volumetric charges. These are significantly lower than the initial 12.6-percent and 18.75-percent increases, respectively -- and revised down from the 11-percent and 15-percent increases presented to Finance last month.
The proposed sewer increase raised the most questions, as it was significantly higher than the 12.5-percent projected increase for FY 2024 that we were shown a year ago. It's true that in between we did approve the Poplar Street Pump Station back in November and were told this would lead to a larger increase in sewer rates this year. I just had serious concerns about how assistance programs will ensure this burden doesn't fall disproportionately on low-income households and those with fixed incomes. I'll be looking for additional details on these assistance programs when we take up this item again tonight during the Water & Sewer departmental budget hearing.
Carnaval in East Somerville this Sunday!
The forecast looks great for Sunday's rain date for Carnaval 2023 in East Somerville on Broadway from Kensington Avenue to Franklin Street. From 2 to 6 PM there will be vendors, performances, activities, food, and fun for the entire family.
A number of my fellow electeds and I will be taking our turns in the dunk tank that afternoon. I'll be in the dunk tank from 3 to 3:15 PM, so come out and try to send me plunging into hopefully-not-chilly water to raise funds for the excellent East Somerville Main Streets!
Community Path Extension update
I was quoted in a Boston Globe article today on the long-delayed and much-anticipated upcoming opening of the Community Path Extension (CPX). The reporter asked me about the website I created, isthecommunitypathextensionopen.com, to provide the latest information to the community in the absence of transparent communication from the MBTA.
The most recent information we've received is that the CPX is scheduled to open in "mid-June." I'm hopeful this is the final delay in the opening schedule and that in a week or two we're all enjoying the use of this really vital addition to our local transportation infrastructure. Stay tuned for news of a massive celebration when we do eventually get an opening date!
Commemorating our history
May was Preservation Month, and our Historic Preservation division's Historic Events and Education program put on a wide range of events. From the Jane's Walk in Boynton Yards to the Highlights of Spring Hill's Beauty Walking Tour to An Engaging Afternoon with General & Mrs. Washington, Brandon Wilson and her team put together an amazing month of programming.
There are upcoming opportunities to learn more about our city's history with docent tours of three historic Somerville sites in the coming months:
- Prospect Hill Tower: June 8 & July 13 (6 to 8 PM); June 17 & July 15 (10 AM to noon)
- Old Powder House: July 6 (6 to 8 PM); June 24 & July 22 (10 AM to noon)
- Milk Row Cemetery: June 15 & July 20 (6 to 8 PM); July 2 (2 to 4 PM)
I hit the magic number of 150 certified signatures on my nomination papers last week, so I'll be on the ballot this fall. There are five experienced at-large councilors running for the four at-large seats, so it promises to be an extremely competitive race. There will be opportunities to host gatherings and knock doors together in the coming months, and I appreciate anyone who is able to help with this effort. Please call, text, or email to find out how you can help.
If you'd like to donate to my re-election campaign fund, you can do that here. And I'm planning on a fundraiser this month that I'll look to get scheduled as soon as I get a chance to catch my breath and do that.
Parkour for all
If you've seen folks in parks using the built environment for recreation, you probably were watching parkour. Somerville's own Parkour Generations recently was featured in the Boston Globe. They are gearing up to host American Rendezvous 2023 in Union Square from June 23 to 25. Parkour Generations also is holding weekend workshops for all ages, and registration is open, with financial assistance available to those who need it. Please visit the Parkour Generations website for more information.
If you or someone you know is interested in joining me in working for the City of Somerville, please take a look at the City of Somerville positions and Somerville Public Schools openings currently posted.
Did You Know...
The City of Somerville encourages residents to host block parties. We have a long, proud tradition of block parties in this city. Here is what you need to know about the process of getting a public events license to hold one.
If you're headed to Carnaval on Sunday, stop by my office hours just beforehand from noon to 2 PM in Chuckie Harris Park on Cross Street East, just off of Broadway. Stay tuned to my social media for any announcements about Very Special Guests potentially joining...
If you'd prefer to meet individually, I'm also continuing to offer on-demand office hours to fit your schedule via my Calendly.
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