Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Somerville parents got a surprising communication March 7 informing us that the mayor will seek volunteers “this spring” for a Somerville School Advisory Group to provide recommendations on a course of action for rebuilding the Winter Hill Community and Innovation School. Even more shocking was the timeline.

“The Advisory Group will spend a period of approximately 18 months to develop a recommendation on whether the project scope should focus solely on the Winter Hill school or if it should include the Brown school as well, and where a new school could be located.”

For folks who haven’t been living this situation day to day, some background information:

About two weeks before the end of last school year, my 6-year old son’s elementary school, the Winter Hill Community Innovation School at 115 Sycamore St., was forced to shut down after a chunk of ceiling fell. After subsequent investigation, the city shut the school permanently and split the students, with Grades 1-8 moved into the nearly 100-year-old Edgerly building in East Somerville while pre-K and kindergarten have been moved to the Capuano Early Education Center.

On March 8, just a day after being told of this delay, Winter Hill parents got a separate email telling us that previously announced plans to renovate the Edgerly to bring pre-K and kindergarten back into the building may not be possible after all.

This is a terrible situation. But I do believe the city has treated it like the crisis it is and responded with urgency. It scrambled to convert the Edgerly building into a makeshift but functional school over the summer and had it ready for the beginning of the school year. It set up busing from the Winter Hill to the Edgerly to support the families that lost their neighborhood school, and to help alleviate the traffic disaster resulting from a thousand families converging on already-crowded East Somerville streets. The city entered immediately into the process to get financial support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority and got approval for a new K-8 school in Somerville, with the state providing 30 percent to 40 percent of the funding.

Somerville also sought help from the state for the Brown School, which is more than 120 years old, has no cafeteria or gym, and is not up to code on accessibility to people with disabilities, which prevents it from housing any specialized education program. In its approval, MSBA gave Somerville the option to submit plans for a single school building that could accommodate the population of the Winter Hill and Brown schools – a combined projected enrollment of 578 students, roughly the same size as today’s enrollment at the Argenziano school. The city has since completed a capacity study to determine what options it has and has shared those results with the public. To summarize, Somerville can build a school big enough to house the combined population of the two schools at one of two sites (the existing Winter Hill site, or Trum Field at 541 Broadway, Magoun Square).

It could also rebuild the Winter Hill on Sycamore to accommodate only the currently displaced Winter Hill students and figure out what to do about the Brown School at some point in the future.

The city asked for feedback. And it has certainly received it. The superintendent has had follow-up meetings with the Brown and Winter Hill school communities, and parents have written to the mayor, superintendent, School Committee, City Council and anybody who will listen with opinions about these plans. Based on this activity, I had hope that the city would decide on a course of action and be ready to move forward as quickly as possible with all the steps needed for construction.

Instead, we got a communication proposing a two-year delay in even deciding upon a course of action. Winter Hill students and staff will remain displaced in substandard swing space for longer than necessary. Brown students will remain at a building that is inadequate now, and according to the city’s own assessments, could become unusable at any time. And if that happens, the city will have no options for where to house the Brown School students, since the city’s only swing space is occupied. Nobody should find this delay acceptable.

The administration is asking for volunteers to serve on an advisory committee for 18 months to make a recommendation about a decision. Somerville has a great many volunteer committees. I have had the pleasure of serving on one. Volunteer committees can be a nice way for citizens already engaged and interested in local government to meet city staff and electeds, get to know other people with similar interests and make some contribution to our community. But I don’t think anybody who has served on one would say that either the members of the committees or their opinions are representative of the community as a whole. Furthermore, the decision process about who gets appointed to these committees is not transparent or subject to any review. The decision about where to site a school and how large to build it is both a technically and politically difficult one. Professional city staff – not a volunteer committee – should advise the mayor on a course of action, and the mayor should make a timely decision about how to proceed.

Of course the city should seek public feedback, and I have no doubt it has received copious amounts of feedback over the past several months since announcing the options under consideration. This new announcement of the formation of a volunteer advisory group to spend two more years making a single decision isn’t coming about due to a lack of public feedback; if anything, it appears to try to be a way to sidestep controversy following an outpouring of passionate feedback from parents.

The truth is, the mayor and superintendent are going to get an earful from angry, stressed-out parents no matter the course of action. We all chose schools for reasons that made sense for our families, and the prospect of the city making changes to our situations is upsetting. After hearing overwhelming positive feedback from other parents, we chose our walkable neighborhood school for our older son, the Winter Hill. That has been taken away from us. After the Winter Hill was shut down, I wanted the city to rebuild it as quickly as possible and for my kids to attend this school that my son loves, with the teachers and staff I know and trust. I would wager that the vast majority of parents, if asked, would give the same answer.

But the city believed it needed to solve for both the broken Winter Hill school and deteriorating Brown School, and it proceeded with asking the state for help with a solution to both. The state has offered that financial support, but accepting it likely means changes that many families, including mine, may not want. But if the mayor, superintendent and city officials believe this course of action is in the best interest of the city and all its families, they need to explain why and proceed without delay.

My understanding is that Somerville will have to borrow money, pass a Proposition 2½ override and raise property taxes to pay for a new school, just as we did in 2016 to pay for rebuilding Somerville High School. Somerville water and sewer rates are increasing to make mandatory upgrades to ancient infrastructure. If accepting state support to build the larger combined school will save the city upward of, say, $100 million, I expect parents will listen to that. If the city tells us that, having been approved for state funds to help solve for both school buildings now, there is no guarantee of such support being given again if we reject it and our next aging building fails, I expect we would listen to that. If the city tells us that it is unacceptable for a child attending the Brown School to be unable to continue there because they sustain an injury and require a wheelchair, I expect parents will listen to that.

Will parents be happy about being told a change is required? No, that is too much to ask. But leaving children and educators in inadequate swing space for more time than necessary, and leaving the city exposed with no apparent solution for the next building failure, should not be an option.

Klaus Schultz, Bartlett Street, Somerville