Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Putnam Avenue building holding the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Amigos schools was chosen Tuesday to be the first Cambridge elementary school to be renovated. (Photo: Gal Tziperman Lotan)

First came a glowing report about the on-time, on-budget complete renovation of Cambridge Rindge & Latin, the city’s high school. Last on the School Committee’s long agenda Tuesday was an angry, agitated vote on which building was next up for improvements, with all the anger and agitation directed toward city councillors who had stalled the night before on their own part of the project.

Ultimately the committee chose unanimously, and as expected, to start renewal with the Putnam Avenue building holding the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Amigos schools. Next year — if issues with the budget-controlling City Council can be worked out — the building will be assessed by an architect and either be renovated or torn down and rebuilt, swapping Amigos for one of the city’s four planned “upper” schools. The new campus, in which middle-schoolers are split from younger students according to a plan debated citywide in February and March, is to be ready in 2014.

Separately, a committee team started looking in October at which facilities needed revamps, and met Nov. 15 with the council to discuss the findings. Problems at the Putnam Avenue building were identified even before that, though.

“This has been on the docket for five years, 10 years I think, that we have buildings that need renovation,” committee member Patty Nolan said. “To remind people, this building was first looked at five years ago, and the condition was such that even then it was identified for reconstruction. It wasn’t in very good shape. This is now five years later. These buildings can’t wait — mostly because these buildings house our kids.”

“This is not a vote against the School Committee,” said member Richard Harding, referring to councillors’ actions Monday. “This is a vote against children.”

Invited into the process

The councillors whose questions and eventual tabling of the $3 million budget request threatened to derail an extensive renovations process in perilous financial times were Craig Kelley, Ken Reeves and Denise Simmons. Although Kelley and Simmons took part in meetings about the plan to create upper schools, called the Innovation Agenda, they expressed unfamiliarity with it Monday. Kelley was the most involved of the three, but Mayor David Maher — who runs the council and committee — said all councillors had been invited into the process.

“Throughout the Innovation Agenda I have gone to the utmost extent to invite, through personal notes, each of the city councillor to all of the important decision-making meetings the School Committee had to make sure they felt they were part of the process,” Maher said.

Odder yet: For the past two terms, the council has on its own made rebuilding elementary schools a priority for the city manager to pursue, Maher said. Yet when the city manager asked Monday for the council to move the $3 million request for an architect to a second reading, when it would become part of the city’s eventual $472.2 million budget vote, there was paralysis.

“Obviously there are a number of agendas people have,” Maher said.

An outspoken opponent

Kelley has been an outspoken opponent of the agenda, but in March he apologized publicly to committee members for his most extreme opposition and told The Cambridge Chronicle that, while he wouldn’t offer blind support, “it is not as if I am going to sabotage it.”

Although Simmons was the one who tabled the budget request, it was Kelley who drew the most fire. Committee members were suspicious that his work against the agenda conflicted with his presence on a parents’ panel set up by Superintendent Jeffrey Young to help implement the agenda. There are two members from, and nominated by, each school.

“You cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. It’s impossible,” Harding said, without naming Kelley. “You are either moving with this thing or you’re not. And it’s that black and white. We need to take a lesson from last night, use it to our advantage to know what to expect if we’re going to have members that aren’t for this plan involved in supposedly making it happen.”

Committee member and vice chairman Marc McGovern was further surprised that it “seemed some councillors were using the budget to try to influence School Committee policy … school policy is what our job is. And if there are city councillors who want to serve on the School Committee, they can pull papers in July and run for School Committee. It’s not for them to step in at the last minute to try to stall a process that this body voted 6-1 on. We worked very hard on this. We did our job.”

Voice of reconciliation

That single vote against the agenda back in March belonged to Alice Turkel, whose voice Tuesday was one of reconciliation, endorsing the posting of all possible Innovation Agenda information on the district website so people could research it and saying “the blame game” wouldn’t help reach the committee’s goals. Still, she said, “I didn’t vote for the Innovation Agenda, but I support renovating schools.”

“The decision’s been made,” Turkel said. “We’ll never all like every decision.”

Nolan also took a calmer, practical approach, likely motivated in part by the meeting entering its fifth hour, and said it looked as though “we have some real bridge-building to do” with the council. The results of that, she said, will be that “10 years from now we’ll have new schools we can be as proud of as we can of the high school.”

That project, approved for $112 million, has so far spent $84 million in construction costs and $6.7 million in change orders, or remarkably less than 10 percent of the total, Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi said, and the city already has 95 percent of its state reimbursement in place. The building should open on time Sept. 2, becoming part of a campus with the War Memorial Recreation Center and Cambridge Main Library that is probably “better than a lot of colleges and universities in terms of the kind of space and quality of space,” Rossi said.

The committee and council have a joint meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, to discuss school renovation and the Innovation Agenda.