One could say that Pope John High School fatigue is setting in for many elected officials.
“We have talked this to death,” School Committee member Samantha Lambert said to her colleagues at Monday night’s School Committee meeting at which the committee heard from two School Department vendors on the Pope John project, Paul Murphy regarding the HVAC needs, and Andrew Barr of RussoBarr, an engineering consulting firm that specializes in Building Envelope Technology.
Both went over the same ground that has been extensively discussed before the City Council, as recently as November 2, for what it will take to turn the former Pope John XXIII high school building into a middle school for grades seven and eight.
“The school must be safe for students to occupy as soon as possible, and that would result in remediating issues like asbestos, replacing the mechanical systems, and reusing the classroom configuration as they presently exist,” Barr said. He estimated that doing these repairs, as well as widening the doorways and making the bathrooms handicapped-accessible, would cost $26-$27M.
These limited repairs would make the building “safe for students within a time frame of ‘as soon as possible’,” he said. This would mean postponing other updates to the building — by not replacing the 50 year-old windows, reusing the existing boilers, leaving the fifth floor intact but unusable for classroom space, and not having air-conditioning in classrooms — at the present time. Barr also noted that the $26M dollar figure would not make this building a true middle school, but “only put bodies into a classroom.”
He noted that the cost to provide air-conditioning in the classrooms would raise the total cost figure to about $46M.
The severe overcrowding in the Everett public schools, which are over-capacity by more than 1,200 students both in the lower schools and high school, has caused city officials to be consumed with fixing the problem, with Superintendent Priya Tahiliani warning that the city could be flirting with a potential lawsuit from the state because of the overcrowded conditions.
“If we redo Pope John, then it will be done according to the gold standard,” Mayor Carlo DeMaria recently told the City Council, adding, “Our kids deserve nothing less.” He also noted that he will do whatever course of action the city’s elected officials decide to take.
The price tag to completely renovate the school, according to city experts, has been pegged at $75M. On this number, Barr said, “I do not disagree, given the scope of work that will be accomplished.”
During the meeting on Monday, School Committeeman Michael Mangan offered a motion that the “administration goes forward with a proposal to renovate Pope John as proposed by the architect that the city hires.”
Prior to the vote, School Committee chair Jeanne Cristiano implored her colleagues, “The foundation of a community is our families and we have an obligation to give the best that we can. We need to stop talking and start building.”
Mangan’s motion passed unanimously.
However, the cost to pay for the renovations to Pope John was debated at the City Council meeting a few days previously on November 1.
Eric Demas, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, laid out several possible scenarios to pay for the renovations of the school that would range from a high of $76M to a low of $30M. In all scenarios, taxes would be raised on all real estate categories ranging from an additional $231 tax hike for a single family homeowner to as much as $3,115 for some commercial property taxpayers.
Councilors also heard that the power plant on lower Broadway will be coming off-line and that will create an additional hole of $15M in the city budget.
The increase in real estate taxes and the loss of the power plant revenues had the councillors looking for more answers.
“A lot of the answers will depend on other questions and answers,” Councilor Stephanie Smith said.
Tahiliani noted, “There is no easy decision, it is more involved,” adding, “We do not want to put the burden on the taxpayers.”
Although a possible solution to the financing quagmire will not come from the state in the form of a school building assistance grant, there is a possibility of applying for new grants for turning existing schools “green.” An immediate solution might be that if the Federal/State guidelines are met, then the city could draw from some of the $47M American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that the city currently has in its coffers, thereby reducing the burden on the taxpayers. By using some of the ARPA, the city could get a gold standard school that would be worth $150M, according to a consultant hired by the city.
In the final analysis, the consensus among all city officials is that the following items are certain:
1) The overcrowding at the high school will not be addressed and will only get worse.
2) Taxes will go up.
3) If the rehab of the former Pope John XXIII building is approved, then the projected opening of the school, depending on the scope of the renovations, will be no earlier than January, 2025, but no later than September, 2025.
4) The city may not be able to fund both a new police station and a new high school (overcrowding at Everett High still will be an issue even with the conversion of Pope John into a middle school) without a tax override, given the cap limitations of Prop. 2 and 1/2 and the cost of the Pope John renovation.
5) DeMaria has the city positioned in strong financial shape with a favorable bond rating that could mean a very good borrowing rate of 4.65%.
Finally, all of the city’s officials agree on one thing: There is no easy answer to fix the city’s school overcrowding problems.