After vote to move high school, Lowell faces lingering divisions
LOWELL — As the City Council meeting continued into the wee hours Wednesday, the verbal sparring over plans for a new high school turned ugly.
Two councilors yelled at each other over who had the right to speak. Members of the public accused council members of being bought by donors. Crowds spilling out of the council chamber jeered speakers.
Six hours into the meeting, the council voted 5 to 4 to build a new school in a suburban neighborhood rather than renovate the 186-year-old downtown school.
But rather than mark the end of a bitter civic fight, the decision has deepened the divisions.
Those who lobbied to keep the school downtown are weighing two options to fight the move: Petition to put the question to a citywide referendum in November, or wait to see whether the price for the new school continues to rise. That might force officials back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, the city of 110,000 will have to contend with a series of hurdles, including how to cover unexpected costs and initiating potentially lengthy eminent domain proceedings.
“I don’t have a sense we’re any less divided today than we are yesterday,” Peter Martin, the creator of a Facebook group in support of keeping the school downtown, said Wednesday. “I don’t think there can be [healing] until it goes to the ballot because I don’t think people have any faith in council.”
It’s a high-stakes project: The city’s only public high school serves over 3,000 students, making it the second-largest in the state, and providing them a modern building is expected to cost at least $330 million.
Proponents of renovating the existing building argued that keeping the central location is crucial and that relocating would make it difficult for low-income students to get to school. Minorities make up nearly 70 percent of students, according to state data.
Advocates for relocating contended that building a new high school, about three miles away in the affluent Belvidere section near Cawley Stadium, would allow students and faculty to reap the benefits of a modern facility and ensure construction won’t disrupt classes.
Councilor William Samaris, who served for 19 years as the Lowell High headmaster, said he’s never seen an issue divide the city as much.
“I know family members, people who have been friends for a long time, who are angry with each other,” said Samaris, who supported keeping the school downtown.
The debate has become so intense, school alumnus Elmer Martinez said, because the issue is not just about the location of the school, but about the future of the city’s identity.
“You’re deciding how to go about our infrastructure, who gets the best accessibility to education,” said Martinez, a 2015 graduate. “You’re choosing to change the city, so of course it becomes very personal.”
Martinez and other supporters of the downtown location are convinced that moving the school would change the city for the worse. But there’s no consensus on what to do next.
Maria Sheehy, who submitted the petition for a referendum Tuesday, said in an e-mail that a group of downtown supporters are likely to collect enough signatures to win a spot on the November ballot.
But Martinez said he would only support the petition if no new information about the Cawley plan comes to light. Otherwise, he said, “We need to not set unnecessary roadblocks ahead of what is already a complicated situation.”
Putting the decision to a referendum vote would almost certainly exacerbate tensions.
“Everyone needs to get behind the option that was chosen last night,” Christa Emerson, an attorney who supported building a new school.
The council will now submit the plan to the Massachusetts School Board Authority. If it’s approved, the authority would also give Lowell officials an estimate of how much it will reimburse the city for the project. Officials originally estimated the state would reimburse 80 percent of it. Now, that number has dwindled to 55 percent.
Officials are also hoping to get a better understanding of a number of unknown costs looming over the plan. The 40 percent of students who currently walk to Lowell High School will need busing.
The city would also need to use eminent domain to seize land owned by nearby businesses, and sidewalks would need to be added alongside residential properties. It’s unclear how much those changes could cost.
Additionally, the site next to Cawley Stadium is covered by a state law designed to protect park space. Two-thirds of each house of the Legislature would need to vote to give the land to the city in order for construction to commence.
Some councilors who voted for the new site, like Corey Belanger, said that if the cost of constructing a new school at the site skyrockets, he would not support it. That would mean going back to the drawing board and reconsidering other options.
For Samaris, as well as most councilors and residents, the city’s ultimate goal is to ensure students are well-served.
“The vote is over; now the question is ‘What has to happen in order to make sure we get this school right?’ ” Samaris said. “That’s the thing that matters.”