Seek empathy and leadership from public officials, rather than dispassion and analysis
(Somerville Wire) – After a packed week of public meetings, the future of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School remains uncertain. Parents are demanding that the city rebuild the school at its current location and provide a timeline for taking action toward that goal.
“This school has experienced decades of underfunding to its physical building, but despite this, the community is thriving. The school is packed. There’s literally hallways that have been converted into classrooms because so many parents choose to send their children here. School pickup and drop-off is incredibly fun. I love taking my kids to school. So many parents linger, they show up early and stay up late. They walk here, bike here. Every single day our different social groups are spending time with each other because it’s a neighborhood school. Listen to the community,” said Winter Hill parent Will Bosworth, during a School Committee meeting Monday night. Many parents followed to speak in favor of keeping the school in place.
During a community meeting the following night, Mayor Ballantyne acknowledged their demand but did not make any commitments. “I’ve heard our parents speaking at school committee meetings, expressing their wish to have [the Winter Hill remain] in the current location. We’re still collecting information,” she said.
In a June 12 letter to the School Committee, the Winter Hill PTA said it planned to “fill the vacuum” left by the city’s lack of communication and action. But the PTA is still recovering from a pandemic-related dormancy with a relatively new board, Murugan said. The relocation to the Edgerly is “a major setback,” particularly as the PTA was beginning to strengthen ties with immigrant families.
The Winter Hill PTA plans to work with the Somerville Council of PTAs to keep the community informed and active, but both bodies navigate a difficult process in which information is tough to find and a timeline is unclear.
On Tuesday, Parents asked school and city officials logistical questions about how the district plans to operate the Winter Hill and maintain continuity in the neighborhood school’s programming and experience, amidst its relocation to the Edgerly and Capuano buildings.
Then the forum pivoted to a “general question” period in which parents asked about progress on the master plan to rebuild the school. But answers from the city revealed very little commitment.
Holding a four-year master plan over the fire of a school crisis is creating a process parents called “discombobulating,” “technocratic,” and “frustrating.”
“There’s a problem with communication. They want to be open, but they don’t want to say anything that they’ll be dinged for,” former Winter Hill PTA Co-Secretary Aili Contini-Field said. “And that leads to winding answers and excessive emails that are just an attempt at communication.”
“We don’t want to hear ‘we’re working on it’ anymore. We want to see the data,” Winter Hill parent Shauna Powers said.
During the meeting Powers asked Director of Infrastructure & Assets Management Rich Raiche to expand on a quote in a Somerville Wire article of last week that implied the City was considering rebuilding the Winter Hill elsewhere.
“Understand that my job is to be dispassionate, analytical, and always play the devil’s advocate to make sure we put everything on the table and evaluate all the options. Parents have a voice in this, and will be part of the community process, but again the idea is that we want to exhaust all the options… I’m the dispassionate one,” Raiche said. “I look at the data and plans without judgment or prejudice on them,” he said.
An approach that is methodical and thorough in the City’s view, appears tone-deaf and lethargic to many community members. The City has been slow-moving on its school buildings in the past. When the ceiling collapsed at the Brown School, it took six years to develop plans to repair it.
“When you say you’re dispassionate, data-driven, it implies we should trust the process,” Inês Lee Santos, a parent, told Raiche. “Any good faith or trust we had in City Hall, and in letting the process happen by itself, has really been eroded over the years and decades that our school has gotten worse. So any idea that you’ve done this before, that you know better than us, that you want to talk to intelligent parents. That talk is just really not appropriate. I would like to see a commitment from City Hall to listen to our community.”
Many Winter Hill stakeholders are demanding the City be more transparent in its planning process, but also think plans are coming together too slowly and too late.
“We had buildings that were being studied for 18 months during COVID. Two years later, we’re still creating studies and blueprint sketches. I think that’s lowered a lot of parents’ confidence that the city is on top of these issues, particularly at Winter Hill,” said Ryan Williams, the current president of the Benjamin G. Brown School PTA and incoming president of the Somerville Council of PTAs. “There are many fair questions of prioritization, COVID interruptions, and funding, but it seems like we could have been much more aggressive with at least the school planning process.”
The partial ceiling collapse that caused the Winter Hill’s closure was the final straw atop a growing list of building issues of which the community and city were well aware, including water damage, rodent infestations, and insufficient ventilation. Now, the Winter Hill community is demanding a timeline for redevelopment to hold city and school officials accountable.
The Office of Communications & Community Engagement confirmed with the Somerville Wire Thursday that it aims to launch a webpage to provide Winter Hill updates by the end of this week.
Until then, a June 28 memorandum to the School Building Facilities and Maintenance Committee, a joint committee of the city council and school committee, contains the latest information from the Department of Infrastructure & Asset Management and the Department of Public Works, including a letter from the engineers recapping findings from the first assessment of the Winter Hill Building and an announcement that AIM hired a Senior Project Manager to begin immediately overseeing the school building project.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire