Reversing its position from two months ago, Carver’s Board of Selectmen has voted unanimously to support a request for state aid for a new elementary school building.
The change of policy last Tuesday by the selectmen, who opposed the idea at a meeting in January, appears to reflect the advocacy work of a group of parents who have been looking for a way to revive a school building project. Town officials have been hesitant to bring elementary school construction back to the table since it failed with voters two years ago.
Town officials say that the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December energized local parents to push for a new school to replace the two deteriorating buildings that serve the town’s elementary school children. Among the buildings’ problems are safety concerns with old doors that would hinder attempts at preventing the kind of attack the Newtown school suffered, windows that don’t open, and fire safety.
“I think that energized [the effort] for sure,” said Lance Kennedy, the School Committee chairman.
Many of the parents who sought a joint meeting of town boards on the school issue in January attended last week’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting.
“It was a very pro-school audience,” town administrator Richard LaFond said of the 40 to 50 people who attended the meeting at which selectmen voted 5-0 to back a “Statement of Interest” to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Written by school Superintendent Liz Sorrell, the statement includes a long list of ways in which the school fails to meet current school building standards and presents both educational and safety problems.
“All building systems in both buildings have exceeded their useful life,” Sorrell wrote in the statement. “Replacement of building systems will not mitigate health and safety concerns.”
Discussing the newer of the two buildings, built in 1975, the statement cited the absence of an emergency exit, windows that cannot be opened, the “age and condition of the doors,” and the lack of fire-barrier walls.
“The open plan of the common areas such as the cafeteria and library media center gives very little security and no fire-rated walls for fire protection,” Sorrell stated.
Discussing the older building, built in 1951, the statement cites “structural problems with the doors and stairs” that present worries for school safety and security. In this school’s design a central gymnasium serves as a hallway, she wrote, causing “safety and barrier-free concerns.”
Selectman Jack Franey also saw parent involvement as the reason the town officials are supporting the effort to seek state aid for a new elementary school.
“After the school shooting, a lot of parents became energized on this,” Franey said on Wednesday. “They weren’t even registered before this. They didn’t bother to vote.”
Franey, who in January voted as part of his board’s majority along with chairman Michael Donnelly and Helen Marrone in opposing sending a statement of interest to the School Building Authority, said he didn’t vote for the idea then because no statement of interest had been written. Further, he said, that vote included an agreement to put a referendum on this year’s ballot supporting a new school.
“I like to read what I’m going to vote on first. You can’t vote on something that doesn’t exist,” Franey said.
After winning selectmen’s approval, which followed a vote of support by the School Committee the week before, the statement now goes to the state School Building Authority. Based on its previous approval of Carver’s case for the need to replace its elementary school, the authority is likely to approve Carver for priority funding. However, the state requires a town to go through a feasibility study for the proposed school site and an architectural design study, a costly process the town followed several years ago.
Franey estimated these costs at $1 million.
Voters have had three opportunities to show support for a new elementary school at the polls and have voted no each time. On the last occasion, two years ago, a nonbinding resolution supporting a building proposal for which the state agreed to pay more than 60 percent of the cost was defeated by a narrow margin at the annual town election.
Following that defeat, school officials attempted to build a consensus through an online survey and public meetings around the need for a new school before attempting the local political process again. A great majority of those responding to the survey said they were aware of the need for a new elementary school.
School Building Authority spokesman Dan Collins said the authority will consider Carver’s statement as long as it’s received by April 10, the deadline for this year’s requests, and evaluate it in the following weeks. “It’s a kind of rolling process,” Collins said.
“But the community hasn’t forgotten” the three no votes at the polls, Kennedy said. “Our focus is to get the community behind this project. This is a good step — unanimous votes by both committees.”