By TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The transformation of Salem from middling municipality to the epicenter of the North Shore began under Mayor Neil Harrington, continued under Stanley Usovicz and has peaked under Kim Driscoll, who will be sworn in today to begin her third term.
Driscoll, the city’s first woman mayor, has been hailed for putting Salem’s financial house in order, negotiating more fiscally responsible union contracts, revitalizing the waterfront, and spearheading projects ranging from renovated parks and playing fields to a new commuter rail station.
But she enters 2014 with major pieces of unfinished business that may, as much as past triumphs, define her years as mayor.
First and foremost is the public schools, which are in the second year of a turnaround effort that began when Bentley Elementary School was given Level 4 status by the state for consistently poor scores on the MCAS exams.
This is a huge undertaking that involves much more than Bentley School, only one of several poor-performing schools, and Driscoll, chairman of the School Committee, plays an important but limited role.
Year Two is when new programs should be in place and results — positive results — should start to be seen.
“It’s not only an important year, but it’s the most important issue because it’s the most important thing (we) deliver to our residents — our quality public schools,” Driscoll said. “We have set high expectations, and we are working hard to achieve them.”
With several principals stepping down, Driscoll sees the selection of new leadership as a key part of the turnaround effort. With that in mind, the city has sought outside help from UMass-Boston to recruit new school leaders and has stepped up efforts to develop administrators from within the public schools.
“Attracting quality leadership is so critical for school improvement,” she said. There is a connection, Driscoll said, between strong schools and strong leaders.
Also high on the list of unfinished business is the senior center, an issue that has befuddled mayors for the past 15 years or more.
The city signed a $5 million purchase-and-sale agreement with a developer almost five years ago for its portion of a public-private development on former Sylvania land, but nothing has been built.
The mayor secured bonding authorization for a community life/senior center last March, but only after outgoing Council President Jerry Ryan helped broker a deal that calls for construction to start “within a year.” That clock is ticking.
“We have to either fish or cut bait,” Driscoll said.
While stopping short of issuing an ultimatum, the mayor said she expects developer David Sweetser to begin construction this spring.
Of course, no issue facing the city is any larger than the redevelopment of the Salem Harbor Station site. The coal- and oil-fired power plant will shut down at the end of May, and the fate of a key approval for a proposed natural gas plant on a portion of that 65-acre site, a plant scheduled to open in 2016, currently is before the state Supreme Judicial Court.
Behind the scenes, Driscoll has been trying to broker a deal with the Conservation Law Foundation, the prime plant adversaries, developer Footprint Power, and officials from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
“I’m at the table with all of the principals, and we’re hopeful we can work something out,” she said.
Whatever happens in court or at the negotiating table, Driscoll knows this site is one of the keys to both waterfront development and the city’s fiscal health, at least in the immediate future.
Right now, the power plant generates $4.75 million in annual taxes and payments, by far the most of any city property.
Most of that is paid by the state under a deal to hold a host city harmless for the closure of a power plant, a deal that runs through 2019.
While earning her stripes as a “green mayor” who has pushed solar, wind and energy efficiencies, Driscoll is a staunch supporter of the proposed natural gas plant.
She sees it as a bridge to a time when the state can rely more on renewables and energy upgrades, a key to the city’s financial stability and a catalyst for redevelopment of an industrial site that could sit empty and padlocked.
“It’s a huge opportunity lost if that doesn’t move forward,” she said.
As she looks ahead to four more years, Driscoll seems forever dogged by the same old question: Will she stay?
Often touted for statewide office, the Salem mayor has gotten good at the answer.
“I never think about that,” she said. “I love what I’m doing and I always say as long as I enjoy this as much as I am, I certainly plan to be here. There’s a lot of exciting work going on.
“I’m bullish on our future, and it’s both humbling and exciting to be a part of it.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.