PEABODY — Mayor Ted Bettencourt emphasized rehabilitation and renovation of the Center Elementary School in proposing a state-backed feasibility study to determine what needs to be done. It won wide support from the City Council last night.
Earlier this year a proposal to let the project go forward was defeated. The earlier presentation did not rule out embracing a recommendation, should it come, to build a new school. “We pulled that back,” the mayor recalled, acknowledging a need for more information. Last night, in contrast to his earlier presentation, he seemed to reject the idea of building a new Center School.
“This is not a request for a new school,” he said. “I would not support a new school.” The city is currently financing its largest project ever, he said, the $92 million middle school.
At the same time, after member Dave Gravel announced he would not support the request because it did not include a willingness to build a new school, the mayor seemed to qualify his position. “I would not vote for a new Center School today,” he explained. “The purpose of a feasibility study is to determine what our needs are.”
School board member Beverly Griffin-Dunne, who was key in guiding the Higgins Middle School project, noted that any project accepted by the Massachusetts School Building Authority would win more than 50 percent state funding. The feasibility study itself could cost more than $100,000 and would be partly funded by the state. The city could withdraw either before or after the study.
School committeeman Jarrod Hochman made the case for need at the Center School. He lamented that a portion of the ceiling fell and nearly hit a student earlier this year. Following that incident, “We realized there is no insulation in the ceiling.” He worried over the cost in lost heat. The gym/cafeteria is too small for basketball, he said.
The proposal to ask the MSBA to co-finance a feasibility study at the Center School had been approved in the past by the council and it has been rejected by the state.
School board member Tom Rossignol reminded Gravel that he voted in favor of it only last year.
With some reservations, councilors were largely in favor of pursing the feasibility study.
“I’m going to support this,” said Barry Osborne.
“It’s nice to see everyone trying to work together to solve a problem,” said Tom Gould. The vote would allow a feasibility study, he noted. “It’s nothing more than that.”
For his part, member Joel Saslaw supported the study but expressed doubts over a new school. “If I’m asked to support building a new school I need to know more about ... what our debt service is.”
Given the serious need for rehabilitating school buildings, including the aging high school, councilor Tom Walsh warned against giving the impression to the public that new schools are coming. He pointed to the burden represented by the cost of the middle school. Colleague Barry Sinewitz recalled the difficulty of explaining tax increases to seniors on fixed incomes.
At the earlier session last January, Gravel and others lamented that no members of the school board, except the mayor, had attended.
This time he welcomed the School Committee and recalled the effort more than a decade ago to build a new high school when School Committee members (himself included) were forbidden to speak before the Finance Committee.
Five school board members attended last night, along with superintendent Joe Mastracola and former interim superintendent and Peabody resident Herb Levine.