There was no disagreement among the elected officials at last week’s Joint Convention of the City Council and the School Committee that something needs to be done as soon as possible to ease the severe overcrowding in the Everett public schools.
However, the path to finding a quick-fix to the problem seemed as elusive as ever, with a rehab of the former Pope John XXIII High School building to bring it up to state-mandated standards estimated as at least a two year process and construction of a new Everett High School estimated as at least an 8-10 year process.
Although the councilors and school board members at the October 4 meeting heard many of the same facts that have been repeated for the past few months, they also were told of other alternatives, including a full-scale renovation of the former Everett High School on Broadway.
Another new twist voiced at the meeting was the idea of adding modular classrooms to a number of the schools in the lower grades that could be a more-immediate solution to the overcrowding problem. The solution of adding modular classrooms had been discussed only for the George Keverian Elementary School, but the possibility of adding modular units at other schools was raised for the first time.
“If you want an immediate solution, then modular units are the answer,” Mayor Carlo DeMaria told the joint meeting.
The session, which eventually lasted for more than two and one-half hours with no decisions reached, led Councilor Stephanie Smith to apologize to those attending either in the audience or watching on Everett Community Television for “wasting the last two-and -one-half hours.”
With regard to the oft-discussed renovation of the Pope John building for a new middle school, the council and School Committee found themselves still waiting for the report from the Mount Vernon Group on the work that needs to be done and the potential cost of turning the former Pope John building, which was built in the 1960s, into a school for students in grades seven and eight that complies with state mandates.
Without that report, all agreed that no decision could be made.
DeMaria did note that a cost analysis had been done in 2019 and it was decided that a renovation would cost the taxpayers more than building a new school because the formula for state reimbursement under the Massachusetts School Building Assistance Program would not reimburse the city for tax dollars spent in the rehab process.
Superintendent Priya Tahiliani supplied her cost report from several contractors who are used by the school administration on in-house projects. Tahiliani said that without including a new air conditioning system and technology infrastructure, the figure was almost $24M and that the cost with those two items could bring the price tag to almost $30M, with a 20 percent contingency fee for unforeseen problems when the walls are opened up.
In the end, the Joint Convention referred action on converting the Pope John into a middle school back to DiMaria, pending receipt of the analysis from the Mt. Vernon Group. As of press time on Tuesday, the report was not available.
However, in a positive move toward bringing about a faster solution to the overcrowding problem, the body approved a motion by Councilor Al Lattanzi that DiMaria look into the cost of installing modular classrooms at several schools instead of just the Keverian.
The School Committee previously approved a line item in the School Department’s 2022-23 budget for its Capital Improvement Plan for the installation of modular units at the Keverian School.
However, work on that plan was shelved when the possibility of converting the Pope John building, which at one time had been designated to be torn down and replaced with an affordable housing complex, into a new middle school.
One benefit of the meeting was that there were some facts and misconceptions discussed during the course of the meeting that made the pros and cons of each course of action a little more clear. Some of the facts that came up included:
— The schools presently are overcapacity by 1,230 students;
— School enrollment in 2020 was 7,056 in 2020, a figure that is expected to grow to 7,720 in 2026, thereby further exacerbating the problem of school overcrowding;
— There are more than 500 Pre-K students using the old Everett High School;
— Repair costs to renovate the old high school could be as high as $145M;
— City officials are not sure whether the $35M in federal funds that the city received from the American Rescue Plan can be used to renovate the Pope John building;
— During the last school year, there were only 100 students in the local school system who were not Everett residents. These students have been removed from the Everett schools; and
— Everett spends $14,682 per pupil, compared to the state average of $16,000;
Among the misconceptions that were cleared up were:
— Whether the Pope John building can open on a limited basis on the lower floors, while renovations proceed on the upper floors. However, the elected officials were told that state law forbids students from being placed into classrooms in one part of a school while work is being done in another section of the building; and
— Repairs both to the Pope John and former EHS structures require more than just “a coat of paint.”
In the end, the consensus of the session was that “deeper analysis” is needed.
“Anything is possible,” DeMaria told his fellow elected officials. “The question is how much do you want to spend and raise from the taxpayers.”
“Time is running out,” Tahiliani cautioned the group. “The city needs to act. We need to get moving and we need decisive action.”