Greetings, faithful voters/troublemakers of Gloucester. We’ve come to you today to help you learn entirely too much about the Debt Exclusion vote – Question 3 in November’s election. Maybe you’ve heard about it, maybe you’ve decided 2020 was best spent consuming no media whatsoever (in which case, good choice). Only Gloucester will have this special question on the ballot. It reads:
“Shall the City of Gloucester be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition two-and-one-half, so called, the amounts required to pay for bonds issued in order to provide the necessary funding for the design, site work, construction and outfitting of a new East Gloucester/Veterans Memorial Elementary School.”
We’re here to break down the true costs of this plan, the alternatives, and why we’ve decided that voting yes is unequivocally the best way forward, even if you may not find it absolutely perfect. When you cut through the rumors and the sky-is-falling melodrama, the choice is abundantly clear.
Ok, The Clam, but how the hell did we get here?
Both EGS and Veterans are very old schools – 1948 and 1956, respectively. The last public data we could find on how old the average public schools are is from the 1990’s, so 30 years ago – and even then only 28% of public schools were built before 1950, and obviously, that number can only have decreased further as schools are replaced at the end of their lifespan. As of 2016, the average age of a main school building was 44 years old. EGS is nearly double that age.
Veterans and EGS are both functionally outdated by modern standards, EGS being the worst of the two. EGS has far too few classrooms and relies on old, rusting, leaky modular classrooms that will need to be replaced in short order. The space means kids are learning or taking IEP-required meetings in the hallways, which is against fire codes. The safety standards are lagging- there are no central communications and that can’t be retrofitted – in an emergency when seconds count, a teacher’s cell phone is the only way to alert 911 or the front office. The basement has extreme moisture issues and teachers have to keep windows open nearly year round to get rid of the excess moisture. There are no art or music rooms, the teacher has to move from classroom to classroom.
After the West Parish project was nearing completion, the city took a long, hard look at the projected classroom enrollment, the city’s resources, and what everything would cost to repair vs replace – and since 2014, there have been over 30 public meetings that got us to where we are now – a consolidated school that combines the two smaller schools into one medium-sized school.
Why Are We Consolidating?
Consolidation can be a hard thing to understand when you’re used to neighborhood schools, but keep in mind, we had nearly 2 dozen small elementary schools at the turn of the last century which eventually consolidated into the 5 we have now. EGS has been a fantastic community school for 72 years, but the demographics of the area are changing, and between 2001 and 2007 the elementary school population dropped from 1865 to 1492. The best explanation is Jonathan Pope’s letter in the GDT about consolidation.
If the city could afford it, it would take a minimum of 20 years to replace the four elementary schools; in contrast, building two schools will take 10 years. Tearing down East Gloucester Elementary School and building a new school on the same site would cost $51 million. To build a new consolidated school would cost $65 to $69 million. To build four new schools would cost approximately $204 million in today’s dollars. In contrast, the estimate for building two new schools would cost $138 million. Over the life expectancy (50 years) of the new schools, maintenance and utilities costs would be substantially less for two larger schools than for four smaller schools. The delivery of education by specialists — music, art, physical education, special education, language and math coaching, interventions and social and emotional counseling — would be far more efficient in larger schools. Larger schools with four sections per grade also provide more capacity to absorb fluctuations in enrollment, leading to more stable catchment areas, and thus a more stable school community .
It makes sense that some people are concerned that 440 students in an elementary school might be too many, I sure as hell was a bit worried. However, research shows it’s not. The top ranked K-5 public schools in greater Boston (per Niche.com) all have over 500 students per school. (2020 Best Schools in the Boston Area, (Maria Hastings Elementary (Lexington) 454 students, Bowman Elementary (Lexington) 546 students, Elmwood School (Hopkinton) 549 students, Bridge Elementary (Lexington) 541 students (based on U.S. Department of Education data). Fuller had over 500 kids, albeit in a much larger and inefficient building that was closed during the biggest economic downturn we’ve been alive for.
The final choice after dozens of public meetings whittled the choices for where to put the school down to just a few, and finally, Veteran’s was chosen. According to the citys’ handy Q&A guide, the decision to build on the Veterans’s site was based upon the following: Preserve as much open space as possible;
- Proximity of the respective student population;
- Potential for more students to walk to school;
- Building a school on a site currently being used as a school;
- Access to utilities; and,
- Less environmental impact;
- In terms of Article 97 and the re-purposing of land along with a “no net loss” involving a land exchange, the Veterans’ site is the more viable option.
But Why New? We Don’t Need That, Do We? Can’t We Fix What We Have?
Nope. You’d think, right? We’re hardy New Englanders, used to fixing what we have. We’re thrifty and not extravagant or wasteful. So the thought of tearing down schools and building new doesn’t sit right with folks, because we’re in a place with old buildings. However, in this case, it doesn’t make any sense – for many reasons, including the major costs to bring the project up to code vs modern, efficient building standards.
The single biggest reason to build a new school is because it’s the cheapest option.
The new school’s $66 million price tag will be subsidized by the state to the tune of $26.9 million (thanks to the 5 years of work by the School Committee and the MSBA), the cost of a new school to Gloucester’s taxpayers will be just under $40 million. There’s a TON of data about the numbers, and if you’re interested in committing several hours researching, start with this handy guide. But turning the decaying schools into something we can use costs far more overall than the new school. Here’s a great take by our good Clam buddy, Stephen Voltz.
If this ballot measure fails, we’ll be facing an avalanche of unavoidable costs including repairing existing buildings at a cost of $18 million per school, $36 million for both – as well as new modular buildings at many more millions. Problems that need to be addressed with the existing buildings include intermittent lack of heat in the winter, structural issues, asbestos tiles that are in poor condition, inadequate wiring including electrical conduit that has corroded, rust and rot in places, copper piping and an HVAC system that needs wholesale entire system replacing (at East Gloucester), an underground oil tank that must be removed, and groundwater infiltration – a literal creek runs through EGS. Not to mention the cost of getting things up to code, like this door that inexplicably drops down and is absolutely not ADA compliant. Surprise, hope your ankles are rubbery.
A full renovation of EGS would help some of the worst problems, but would decrease the amount of classroom space to meet modern codes and make the population problem worse, and that would still cost us $28.4 million.
Are these costs we could have avoided had we done more (that is, spent more money through different tax increases) in the past to keep them in better shape? Not really. Schools wear out. In a comprehensive study of school facilities across the U.S. the U.S. Department of Education concluded that “after 40 years, a school building begins rapid deterioration,cand after 60 years most schools are abandoned.” (How Old are America’s Public Schools. NCES 1999-048. U.S. Department of Education – National Center for Education Statistics. 1999). Gloucester passed the 40 year milestone with these schools when school buildings “begin rapid deterioration” a generation ago, and have now sailed on past the 60 year mark when most school buildings are abandoned. Veterans is 63 years old. East Gloucester is 72 years old.
The second reason not to go the repair and rehab route is that even after we pay $36 million to fix up our old school buildings we still won’t have enough room. Right now, teachers are teaching in hallways. After a $36 million capital maintenance only project, they’ll still be teaching in hallways in a school that is still massively overdue to be replaced, and has LESS space because of the need to bring everything to current code. And we’ll still be spending more on utilities than we would for a new, LEED, green building.
So Why Are People Against This?
We’re seeing arguments to vote against it. Some is based on not fully understanding that alternatives were already researched and what their costs would be, and a lot is highly emotionally charged feelings about change or not having their particular idea chosen and therefore felt unheard. The worst arguments we’ve seen are accusing everyone from the mayor, the school and city council, the architects and the Vote Yes group of lying about the math, not being transparent or even worse – being complicit in some kickback scheme, and to be honest: that’s absolutely shameful, uncalled for and inappropriate. All the groups above have been painstakingly transparent, as accurate as possible, and if any inaccuracies are brought to light, they are fixed. That’s what they take pride in and that’s their commitment to the city and community. End of story.
But here’s the most repeated arguments we’ve seen, and why it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny:
The people weren’t heard: There were T H I R T Y meetings with public input from the beginning of this process, and boy, there was a lot of input. For instance, the Green Street abutters did a thorough job of respectfully explaining why the school would not work in that area, which contributed to the final decision to place the school at Veteran’s, where a current school already exists and would negatively impact the abutters the least. Even if making a meeting was impossible, our school committee and city councilors are available by phone or email. Everyone who had a point to make could make it several times over, and most availed themselves of that opportunity. But make no mistake – there were many choices, and the final choice not being what you wanted doesn’t mean the process wasn’t fair or your input wasn’t heard. Screwing over a whole generation of kids because you didn’t get your way is the ultimate Karen move.
The project was rushed! This is year 5 of the process. The only time crunch is that if the vote doesn’t get approved, we lose out on the money. To be frank, some people weren’t paying attention to news or city council meetings, the agendas of which are required by law to be listed publicly ahead of time.
We can’t afford it! Unfortunately, we have to. The Anti-school folks have done a pretty great job at playing sleight of hand games with the math and pretending it’s between a choice of spending nothing and spending millions on a brand new school, so they can get people who don’t want to spend money on their side. But that’s just patently NOT the whole story – we already explained above that the minimum required to keep both buildings running is $36 million. Recently, new superintendent Ben Lummis made a point that seems to have been buried in the avalanche of voices: we don’t have the money even for the upgrades necessary, and if this does not pass, we will likely need another debt exclusion just to keep those schools from closing. The average cost is about $12-15 a month for a home valued at $400-$500k – basically another Netflix or a trip to McDonalds. We can either spend it smartly, or throw it down the drain.
A bit under $40m gets us a beautiful new school for the next 50 years financed at nearly 1% interest. It’s the best financial option, hands-down. The school committee, a vast majority of the city council, and the mayor all agree on this.
Well, they didn’t maintain the schools twenty years ago so why would I spend money now? I don’t know what this argument even is. honestly. I have asked over and over again, but no one can come up with a concrete example of what counts as purposeful neglect. I work in risk management and with building characteristics on a daily basis, and I assure you, there are no 80 year old buildings that would survive without being taken care of. Maintenance may have been deferred due to budget restrictions, but clearly the answer isn’t “let’s never replace anything”, it’s “Let’s correctly fund it.” A major change, shifting maintenance to the DPW, means that now a ticketing system is in place to spur fixes to maintenance issues as they happen – a welcome improvement.
Let’s not forget that in 1996, a lot of the same people who are crowing that we didn’t maintain the schools voted down a $1.5 million debt exclusion to put money into Veteran’s. Weird, right?
The Building Doesn’t Matter, the Experience Does! Oh this one kills me becauses it’s so often said by people in an age group that had a host of brand-new schools at the time. Adequate school buildings absolutely do matter, and there’s science behind it. Not to mention, it’s pretty hard to learn when the heat goes out multiple times in a week and the inside is 40 degrees.
“Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Labs noted an increase of 50 percent to 370 percent in the incidence of respiratory illness in spaces with low ventilation rates, as are commonly found in schools, compared to spaces meeting industry-accepted standards.Breathing fresh air is not only critical for keeping students healthy but also for keeping them alert. Several studies have linked recirculating air and low ventilation rates in classrooms with lower average daily attendance and slower speed in completing tasks.7 Studies also have found that poor facilities are strongly associated with student truancy and higher rates of suspensions.8 Additional research shows that adequate lighting and good acoustics also help students remain alert and ready to learn. Research has examined the connection between daylight and students’ ability to focus, retain information, and maintain alertness.
But I Want Neighborhood Schools! This is an argument that has merit and is understandable. However, it’s important to note that more than 60% of current EGS kids live closer to Veterans than EGS and many families have to pass Veteran’s daily to get to their school. Veteran’s is truly their local school. It’s important to have a downtown school for downtown kids that make up such a large part of our elementary population. The consolidated school is still very close to East Gloucester. Keep in mind that other parts of downtown are bussed all the way to Plum Cove, and the majority of kids in the downtown core have been flung far and wide to all 5 elementary schools. “Neighborhood Schools” have been out of reach for a huge swath of the population for decades. It’s time more kids were given their own neighborhood school, and this plan does just that.
But isn’t renovating or rehabbing cheaper? I know we already went over this, but it isn’t! On a cost per square foot basis, simply renovating EGS – which does nothing to solve the educational shortcomings of the building – comes in at a whopping $639 per square foot. In contrast, building a brand new, efficient, consolidated school that actually meets our needs is $613 per square foot. There are a lot of reasons – ADA and current construction codes, cost of materials, etc. The EGS building envelope – it’s shell – is already rated in poor condition. It doesn’t have good bones. It has weak, brittle, osteoporosis bones.
I don’t like the layout/bushes/traffic! This is typical of so many late to the party objections. Neither the layout or outdoor space is on the ballot, and there were multiple meetings where the parking, play space, and layouts were adjusted. People seem to think if they don’t like the kind of bushes planned for the new building’s landscaping they can vote against the debt exclusion, get their pet peeve addressed and then have the city put up another bond measure that includes their favorite bushes, down the road. That’s not how it’s going to work. At the very best, we might have a shot at repeating this 10 year MSBA process in another 5 years, but with the increased cost of labor and materials, and with the very real possibility of higher interest rates and lowered MSBA money depending on the economy over the next 5-6 years, it’s going to cost us a LOT more. Plus, the MSBA is going to shy away from working with us in the future if they think it’s going to be a waste of time because we can’t come up with the money.
Ipswich had so many similar arguments, and their similar new consolidated school plan failed. Our friend Amanda, who is an Ipswich resident, explained what happened next and it’s exactly what you’d imagine.
Combining our two elementary schools would have provided a more equitable education environment for our kids. The plans provided beautiful open spaces, large rooms with all the technology required for kids and educators, natural light, climate control, green-design, outdoor spaces for play and learning, maker spaces. Instead, a vocal minority voted down the plans due to an outdated romantic idea of a neighborhood school in walking distance to only a minority of students and we lost out on the opportunity. They continuously said, “we can do better,” but an alternative plan has yet to be presented. Now we are stuck with outdated buildings with broken furnaces, leaking roofs, and overcrowded classrooms that can’t be retrofitted to suit the technology needs of a modern learning environment. The disparities between the two schools are felt even more sharply now in the pandemic. There’s no way forward now, no plan, no money to upgrade, and no idea how many more generations of students and educators in Ipswich will have to adapt to buildings that were never meant to last this long.
Listen, there’s a lot of negativity we see out there, but we have to make sure Gloucester stays somewhere businesses and residents want to remain. We need young families to thrive and stay viable into the future so our economy doesn’t lose its middle class, and we need to be attractive to businesses looking to relocate in the area, or the town becomes nothing but AirBNBs and low skill/low wage jobs to support that industry. We have great assets like Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, but the decaying, 70+ year old schools aren’t able to give kids the technology and skills advantage they need to have successful careers in STEM fields. We have a perfect opportunity to borrow at an extremely low interest rate to keep everyone’s taxes as low as humanly possible. A new, beautiful school will be an asset to our community, not a liability like we have now.
This vote is a simple YES we build the school, or NO we don’t. If we don’t, we all end up paying for it down the line – and I don’t just mean financially.