A proposal to construct a new elementary school in Gloucester is stirring debate as the plan heads to voters Tuesday.
In a local ballot question at the Nov. 3 state election, residents will consider a debt exclusion for the $66.7 million project, which calls for replacing the existing Veterans Memorial and East Gloucester elementary schools with a new consolidated facility at the Veterans school site on Webster Street. The existing schools would be demolished.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority has pledged to cover $26.9 million of project costs. The debt exclusion would fund the city’s $39.8 million share, adding $97 to the annual property tax bill of an average home valued at $485,000 over the 20-year bond period. If it passes, the City Council is expected to authorize the borrowing.
With election day approaching, ballot committees for and against the plan have been reaching out to voters.
Supporters say the project is needed because the East Gloucester School and Veterans Memorial School, opened in 1948 and 1956, respectively, are aging buildings ill-equipped for modern educational needs.
“They were designed to deliver education in the 1950s,” said School Committee chair Jonathan Pope. “They don’t have art rooms or music rooms. They have combined gymnasium and cafeteria spaces.” He said the schools also are overcrowded, have outdated mechanical systems, provide limited handicap access, and are not equipped for modern technology.
“It would be more expensive to try to maintain them over the next 20 years than to build a new building,” added Pope, who also chairs the School Building Committee. He said consolidating the school in one building will save on both construction and long-term operating costs.
But opponents object to locating the new school at the Veterans site because it would mean the loss of Mattos Field, a softball diamond named for Joseph Mattos, a resident of the then mostly Portuguese neighborhood who died in 1918 during World War I at age 19. The city dedicated the site to Mattos in 1935, and rededicated the field to him in 2018 after installing lights and otherupgrades.
“We want to leave Mattos Field as it is. It was dedicated to him and for 85 years we have honored that dedication,” said Denise Pascucci, a Gloucester resident active in the softball organization, which helped fund the $280,000 field project.
Pope said the city will continue to honor Mattos, noting that the plaque installed at the original 1935 dedication, now affixed to a stone in front of the school, will remain where it is.
Pascucci, a leader of the ballot committee opposing the plan, also questioned why the city would “rehab a field and three years later bulldoze it.”
Opponents also say replacing the existing school with a much larger, 90,461-square-foot building would exacerbate traffic problems and remove one of the neighborhood’s last remaining natural grass areas.
“Now there is only one green space in the whole neighborhood for kids to play in, and it’s going to be lost,” said longtime neighborhood resident Linda Burke.
Pope said the city plans to build a new softball field at the Green Street recreational area less than a mile away, and expects to relocate the new lights to that field. He also noted that as part of a special act the city secured to remove Mattos Field from use as parkland, Gloucester pledged to replace it by converting the East Gloucester school site to recreational use.
Pope said studies showed the project will actually ease traffic congestion, including by providing a larger on-site drop-off area.
Former city council president Paul Lundberg, chair of the ballot committee supporting the project, said that “the School Committee and the School Building Committee studied all the different options for four years and came up with this as the best plan.”
“We have an affordable way to finance a new school through a partnership with the MSBA, the city, and the taxpayers,” he said.
“What we are proposing to do is the most financially responsible solution to the problems we are facing,” Pope said. “And the bottom line is that the kids deserve to be taught in a state-of-the-art facility.”
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.