While the City studies crumbling infrastructure, the School Committee wants immediate action to address issues they see before their eyes
(Somerville Wire) – The Somerville School Committee voted Monday evening to apply for funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority in an attempt to accelerate redevelopment on the dilapidated Brown School and Winter Hill Community Innovation School buildings, ahead of the city’s four-year timeline.
Everyone wants new school buildings, but the School Committee and the City are trampling over one another to address the needs of Somerville’s public school students.
The City’s four-year plan includes a two-year, $550,000 data collection and design process—with construction slated for 2026 or later. But the school committee moved to start construction sooner, saying planning can be done in tandem. By expediting the MSBA application, the School Committee will forgo results from district-wide studies on enrollment, space-needs, and building capacity.
The MSBA application is due April 14 and will require approval from the Somerville City Council and Mayor Katjana Ballantyne.
During the meeting, teachers, parents, and community members described issues with the 1970s Winter Hill Community School building and demanded the city provide a more concrete, accelerated timeline to redevelop it. The Brown School, while less at risk of demolition, is an equally complex project—but it had few supporters present.
“I’m sure you will hear about the complexity of construction projects; the funding sources are tricky; that studies need to be conducted first; that it is a process and that we all just need to be more patient. This city hides behind processes to prevent progress.” Rami Bridge, president of the Somerville Educators Union, said Monday.
The City says the studies will not only make the MSBA application more compelling—they will help inform how the district can meet the community’s needs for another hundred years. In the short term, it is uncertain whether MSBA is willing to overlook the absence of that data when it reviews Somerville’s application.
“This is documentation that is required by the MSBA.” Director of Infrastructure and Asset Management Rich Raiche asserted Monday night. “The school system can’t simply come in and say, ‘we don’t like our building, please give us money’ without the data behind it.”
In an interview Tuesday, School Committee Chair Andre Green said he supports submitting the MSBA to get construction underway as soon as possible. “I want to be sure we exercise every possible route to do that.” Green said. “There were fair questions asked about whether this would actually be faster than the status quo, and I think that’s undetermined.”
While the School Committee moves to prepare the application, the City remains steadfast in conducting studies before submitting—if necessary—an MSBA proposal between winter 2024 and fall 2025. Under its plan, construction would begin in 2026 at the earliest. The City expects to unveil the enrollment study to the public in the next week or so.
“I will preview that [the study] doesn’t give us a whole lot of incredibly shocking information, it projects either a slight increase or slight decline in our enrollment—like a great study.” Interim Superintendent Dr. Jeff Curley said.
Raiche said he’s prepared to supply the interim superintendent with what data he has, but he believes omitted data could create holes in the plan.
“If enrollment is going up in a real estate intensive program like special education—in which you have a smaller head count in the classroom of equal size—is a third building or a building at a different location required? Because we can’t service that total student population on the existing portfolio of buildings,” Raiche said.
More immediate pragmatic issues could prevent breaking ground this year too; like where to put students from the Brown and Winter Hill schools during the construction. It was clear Monday, that the school committee is not certain where students would go during any prolonged emergency.
Another concern is involving the community, both on the school building plans, and on the ballot. As the redevelopment uses public tax dollars, voters will need to decide whether to raise property taxes.
“None of that groundwork has been laid yet,” Raiche said in an interview Tuesday. “The Brown Schools and Winter Hill Schools know the deficiencies of the building—you get outside the city, none of the voters know the importance of funding major construction work like that.”
Nevertheless, Interim Superintendent Curley will make the case to MSBA using what he’s heard for years.
“Two minutes is not enough to explain all the deterioration and problems that the building has caused my students, myself, and the families I work with.” Julie Sahlas, a third grade teacher at Winter Hill since 1993, began during public comment Monday night.
Teachers, parents, and community members described years of water leaks, inaccessibility due to dysfunctional elevators and broken powered doors, falling ceiling tiles, mold, carbon monoxide hazards, cockroaches, rodents—teachers and community members demanded answers from the City. They said they wanted to know why it seems the City isn’t prioritizing these issues and why they need data to corroborate the experiences they have every day.
“The Winter Hill Community plan is in fact on the Capital Investment Plan,” Mayor Ballantyne said, noting the CIP accounts for ongoing maintenance at Winter Hill and a 10 percent increase to the school budget. The funds for the redevelopment, however, will come largely from MSBA and public tax dollars, and therefore aren’t listed on the CIP. Moreover, with all the variables in play, it is not certain whether construction will begin in five years—the timeframe of the annual CIP.
“The high school never appeared on the previous CIP spreadsheet, but we built it,” Raisch said, referencing the new Somerville High School building.
In an interview Tuesday, Raiche also said he has “no illusions” about the Winter Hill building. “I’ve been in its guts…but the MSBA isn’t going to take our word for it.”
Many community members argued that the school committee should withhold approval to renovate another public edifice, the 1895 Building, into government offices until there is a concrete and timely plan for the Winter Hill school. Anticipating the argument that new offices are a necessity, one school committee member remarked that the City was able to function remotely during the pandemic.
Raiche said this “brinkmanship” won’t work. “It would not be in the city’s best interest to [give in] and it sets up a combative environment. The taxpayers will become effectively anti-school. I would love to get up in front of them, and lie. ‘Yes, we’ll break ground next year.’ But I don’t know what we’re building or where we’re building it—we need community input there.” Raiche said. Moreover, he added, the two projects, the Winter Hill and 1895, could happen at the same time. But the 1895 Building has more comprehensive planning today.
“The chance is worth it,” Chair Green said regarding the MSBA application.
But every chance comes with a risk. In 2018, MSBA provided the district with $8 million to install a new roof, windows, doors, and updates to the schoolyard at the Winter Hill. Raiche said the MSBA could issue a clawback after declining this year’s application and demand money back on the new building.
The school committee must respond to the MSBA by April 14. Meanwhile, the City “will do everything it can” to speed up the process. “But I do want to be realistic,” Raiche said.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire