Onotse Omoyeni graduated from Lowell High School in the spring. With more than 3,000 students in the school, she says, her classmates represented families from 62 countries, speaking more than 50 languages.
“It’s a really dynamic place to begin the process of coming into yourself,” she says on the phone from Washington, D.C., where she has just begun her studies at Howard University. “Going to Lowell High School made me, and a lot of my peers, a more compassionate, empathetic person.”
That’s good, because the students, parents, and educators in Lowell’s diverse community of over 110,000 are currently embroiled in a debate that is trying the city’s patience. Earlier this year, the City Council voted to build a new high school out by Cawley Stadium on the city’s southeast side, in the historic Belvidere neighborhood. Then the School Committee voted in support of another option that had been on the table: a plan to gut, renovate, and expand the existing high school campus downtown.
Now, a group called Save Lowell High has collected enough signatures – more than 6,500 – to add a nonbinding referendum to the November ballot, asking residents to weigh in on the two proposed sites for the high school. In addition, the issue is influencing the City Council race, where candidates who favor the downtown site appear to have the early edge in the Nov. 7 election.
Supporters on both sides say they believe their plan holds the most promise to ensure a standard of excellence they want for the children of the city. As with other social and political issues that have exposed deep rifts across the country of late, the fight in Lowell has become a fierce tug-of-war, with both sides willing to get a little muddy as they dig in their heels.
Eric Nelson, a cofounder of Citizens for Lowell, a political action committee that supports the proposed new construction at the Cawley location, graduated from Lowell High School and went to Harvard University. For him, the prospect of his young children attending the high school during a major renovation and rebuild is his primary reason for supporting the Cawley option.
“Education is really too important in our family to send [my son] to his entire high school career in a construction zone,” he says.
But Nelson, a commercial real estate developer whose parents taught in the local school system for decades, also believes the Cawley option offers the best long-term potential. “Cawley is a blank slate, most easily designed to meet the education plan,” he says.
A new high school at Cawley Stadium (where Lowell High School’s Red Raiders host their home games) will cost about $336 million to $339 million with reimbursements from the Massachusetts School Building Authority resulting in a price tag of about $149 million to the city.
By contrast, the plan to renovate and add to the current downtown location, including the acquisition by eminent domain of an adjacent office building, carries a higher price tag at $353 million, but would cost the city less — $143 million — after reimbursement from the MSBA. In either case, the new Lowell High School is destined to be the biggest, most ambitious school project in state history.
Mike Gallagher, a Lowell attorney, former member of the School Committee, and longtime advocate on behalf of various social services in the city, is the committee chairman of the Save Lowell High campaign. For him, the core argument about the best location involves “equity and accessibility.
“I’ve spent a lot of years working to develop programs, services, after-school opportunities, and internships in the downtown,” he says. “There’s a ‘campus’ feel that has been developed downtown.”
Lowell National Historic Park is right across the street, he says. There are museums and galleries, colleges, the main branch of the public library, a new community health center, and many other resources in the immediate vicinity.
The city center “provides offerings to Lowell High School students you don’t often get in suburban — and a good number of urban — environments,” Gallagher says. “Having worked real hard to provide those opportunities, it would be ridiculous to put the facility out on the periphery, in another town [Tewksbury], almost.”
But Cawley supporters point out that the current high school site, used in various configurations for nearly 200 years, has been renovated before, and still presents challenges. They cite the need for asbestos abatement in the older buildings. One parent mentioned that her daughter’s volleyball game was recently canceled because of a leaky roof.
“We’ve seen how much has been spent on renovation downtown, and it just keeps falling apart,” said Kim Little, who wore a pink custom-lettered T-shirt that read “Mom for Cawley” at a recent event called the Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race.
As crowds cheered on people riding wacky bicycles outfitted to look like sharks and hamster wheels – Little’s twin 11-year-olds were part of a team of students and faculty from Lowell’s STEM Academy that designed one of the mobile sculptures – Gary Potwin and his wife, Ruth, roamed the downtown streets collecting signatures for the ballot measure.
Though the Save Lowell High group already had enough certified signatures, Potwin was hoping to add more “to demonstrate that this isn’t just a squeaker,” he said.
For the couple, who moved to Lowell from Waltham seven years ago, the issue of the school location is “a social justice issue,” Potwin said. They believe the Cawley site would require too many students from the city’s less privileged neighborhoods to spend an inordinate amount of time on buses.
In fact, some Belvidere residents have voiced their opposition to the Cawley location over the prospect of increased traffic in their neighborhood. But Liz Gilreath isn’t one of them.
She’s the mother with a daughter playing volleyball for Lowell High. Last fall, she attended a lengthy community meeting about the school proposal, thinking the downtown renovation was a fait accompli.
“But when I listened to what the staff, the students, and teachers were talking about, I left thinking ‘This is not gonna work downtown,’” she says.
With the City Council and the School Committee at odds over the site, and positions on both boards up for grabs on the same ballot that will feature the school referendum, there’s a lot yet to be determined about the future of Lowell High School.
There’s one way in which Gilreath speaks for many of her fellow residents on both sides of the debate.
“I’ll be actively involved until they cut the ribbon,” she says, “wherever that front door is.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.