Superintendent of Schools Priya Tahiliani outlined three options, including using the former Pope John XXIII High School as a middle school for grades 7 and 8, at Monday night’s School Committee meeting in order to alleviate the overcrowding situation in the Everett school system.
With the schools operating at 1,200 students over capacity, many elected city leaders, school officials, and residents view the problem as the overriding issue on the political agenda.
“To use Pope John for 7th and 8th grade students makes the most sense,” Tahiliani told School Committee members, who noted that additional classroom space has been needed for years in the Everett schools.
Tahiliani said that this move would alleviate the overcrowding at the five K-8 schools, with no need for modular classrooms as has been suggested for the George Keverian School. The estimated cost for 10 modular classrooms at the Keverian had a price tag of $2 million, but this amount could increase by 50% or more because the $2 million figure did not include the cost for utilities to be brought in or for the installation of pads that the modulars would be built upon.
Tahiliani noted that she had a walk-through of the Pope John site with architects and contractors, and it “looked good.” However, she did point out that repairs would have to be made to the building, most notably for asbestos removal, the installation of a sprinkler system, and removing some non load-bearing walls.
“Much has to be done,” to make the school, which was built in the 1960s, usable today, she said.
Tahiliani said that there are 46 classrooms at the former school, including a gymnasium, cafeteria, elevators, and science labs. “This would be a school that Everett can be proud of,” she added.
Presently, the combined 7th and 8th grade classes in the Everett schools have a total of 1,068 students, a figure that is projected to increase next year to 1,082.
Tahiliani pointed out that under this model of a junior high, a curriculum of special classes geared to this age group can be accommodated and that there would be space for after-school clubs.
New employees would have to be added, such as nurses, custodians, and cafeteria workers, as well as school administrators. Tahiliani estimated that it would take $30-$40 million to re-open the school.
The other two options that were mentioned were using the old high school on Broadway as a school for grades K-8. The building is currently being used by about 600 students.
The third option would be the construction of a freshman building and campus on the land on Elm Street that would take the pool, the park, the police station, and skating rink.
These last two options were discussed in 2018 and 2019 with the estimated costs at that time of $145 million to repair the old high school and $67 million for the freshman building.
During the discussion of the three options, it was noted that while using Pope John as a junior high would end overcrowding at all of the K-8 schools, the problem of overcrowding would not be addressed at the present high school.
The discussion then moved to how to pay for one of these options. Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who is an ex-officio member of the School Committee, said that he has already submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Assistance Program a proposal for a new high school, possibly at the River Green Park where there already are many school-related facilities in place, such as tennis courts and access to the waterfront for crew and sailing.
DeMaria touched on the fact that the funds that the city currently has under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) might be able to be spent on repairs to the Pope John site.
However, he noted that this one project could drain all of those funds, leaving many other local organizations that are seeking to increase their outreach into the community without any funding.
But the mayor then added that if the ARPA funds were not to be used, then taxpayers would have to foot the expenditure for the Pope John renovation, as well as $100 million for a new high school, on their tax bills.
“I am open to everything,” DeMaria added.
But DeMaria also went on to explain the need for affordable housing in the city. There has been an ongoing proposal to demolish the Pope John school and convert the site into an affordable housing complex, but that has been put on hold pending whether the city, which owns the building, decides to use the former school for new school space.
DeMaria said he has seen children sleeping in the stairwells of residential units and that affordable housing is also a major concern among many city residents. He highlighted this point by noting that there were 560 applicants for just 77 units of affordable housing at the recent St. Therese’s apartment project on Broadway.
The mayor concluded his remarks by saying that he supported the superintendent in her efforts and added, “Let’s try to resolve this together.”
The committee voted to send a letter to the mayor’s officer to seek a tour of the Pope John site. DeMaria said that they should coordinate this effort with this office and he would make sure that the members received a tour.
DeMaria, Cristiano Exchange Words Over Personal Comment
Tempers between Mayor Carlo DeMaria and School Committee Chair Jeanne Cristiano became a little heated during Monday night’s meeting.
Cristiano noted that in this year’s freshman class there are 506 students, with next year’s class projected to be 630.
“We need action now,” Cristiano said, referring to the need for additional classroom space at Everett High to accommodate the burgeoning school population. She then went on to say that students with Individualized Education Plans were pulled out of class,” and put into hallways.
DeMaria then noted how he was in remedial classes when he attended the local schools, prompting Cristiano to snap back, “That explains it.”
DeMaria immediately chastised Cristiano for insulting all the children on an IEP.
Their discussion then traded back-and-forth about how the two are neighbors and friends — and all seemed to end well.