Gates school decision will have broad implications

Jen Morrison of Friends of Scituate’s Future took a group on a tour of Gates Intermediate School, pointing out safety issues throughout the building.
Photos by Jessica Bartlett for The Boston Globe
Jen Morrison of Friends of Scituate’s Future took a group on a tour of Gates Intermediate School, pointing out safety issues throughout the building.

Scituate parent Jen Morrison walked around Gates Intermediate School on a Saturday afternoon, ticking off the building’s problems in rapid succession.

First there were all of the building’s outside doors that have to be manually locked down every night and unlocked every morning. Then there were the fire doors — 25 in all — that are meant to automatically shut in case of a fire to keep the flames from spreading.

According to Morrison, 90 percent of them don’t work, and are instead propped open to allow egress throughout the building.


Not to mention that 90 percent of the 95,437-square-foot building does not have sprinklers.

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“The potential for a real disaster is kind of huge,’’ Morrison said, “and when you think of it in those terms, you don’t want to have children here.”

Morrison, cochairwoman of Friends of Scituate’s Future, is pushing for solutions to the deficiencies at Gates. The way Scituate addresses these issues will strongly influence the future of the school system and the town as a whole.

On Tuesday, Town Meeting will decide whether to appropriate $750,000 for a feasibility study on whether to build a new Gates school or renovate the building. The decision would be the first step toward a master plan that could alter the makeup of the town’s public buildings and schools for decades to come.

Town officials have an idea of what that master plan would look like, and it could involve moving Town Hall into a renovated Gates building, demolishing the current Town Hall and police station to build a middle school there, and relocating the public safety complex elsewhere in town.


Those ideas, however, are in the distant future. What parents like Morrison are concerned about is the here and now.

Morrison joined other members of the Friends for Scituate’s Future to point out all the problems as they led tours this month of the Gates School for scores of parents and interested citizens.

At the nearly 100-year-old building, most windows don’t work properly; the heater is fairly new, but the heating system is outdated; air purifiers don’t work; additions made in 1929, 1952, and 1959 are riddled with problems; and the handicap accessibility in the building is either comically complex or frustratingly difficult.

Morrison welcomed the vote on the feasibility study as the first step toward obtaining funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. “First of all, we would look at, ‘Can we renovate this building for a school?’ No one is jumping to the conclusion that we cannot renovate it as a school and it has to become Town Hall,” she said.

School Superintendent John McCarthy said the Massachusetts School Building Authority requires that a feasibility study be performed before the town can proceed with next steps of a renovation or reconstruction with the state’s help.


The goal is to have the state fund 40 to 45 percent of whatever path the town chooses.

A feasibility study would also enable Scituate to look at all its schools to determine what the educational needs of the town are and what kinds of buildings are needed to support that.

“We’ll create the vision for all the schools,” McCarthy said. “Though we’re focusing on Gates, it will really be about all the schools.”

The Cushing, Hatherly, and Wompatuck schools are also in the 50- to 60-year-old range, and in need of repair, McCarthy said.

While the feasibility study would not raise tax rates right now, as the funding would come from existing revenue sources within the town, the project, if approved, could lead to higher taxes in the future.

“Eventually [the town] will have to do something. One thing that’s positive is [Scituate has] very little debt. . . . It’s a good time for Scituate to be looking at this,’’ McCarthy said.

“The other two advantages are construction costs are relatively low compared to what they could be. It’s a very competitive time to be building. And interest rates are very low. Borrowing money is a lot less expensive than it was five to 10 years ago. For those reasons, this is the perfect time for Scituate to be looking at a project.”

For parent Terri Martini, owner of Front Street Gourmet, the state of the school and the idea of the overall cost of fixing or replacing it are both troubling.

“It’s overwhelming, it seems like there is an awful amount of work,’' she said.

“Don’t get me wrong — this community is wonderful. Being a business owner, I get to know a lot of people . . . and I know that community involvement is huge once they are aware. Being aware of what’s going on around here, people will rally,” Martini said. “[But] I’m concerned about it, this isn’t hundreds of dollars; this is millions of dollars.”

Yet town officials pointed to the ability to fund a feasibility study from existing sources as a major success.

The money would come from several areas: $364,00 from an increase in local receipts and local aid; $10,400 from the overlay reserve, an account that funds property-tax abatements, exemptions and uncollected taxes; and $375,591 from free cash.

“Because of the prudent fiscal policies and budget procedures the town has put in place the past few years (e.g., not using free cash to fund recurring costs), we are able to fund all the articles with no impact to taxpayers and within available resources,” Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi said in an e-mail.

“That being said, the town has significant and challenging public building infrastructure needs, and this Special  Town Meeting marks the first step of an ambitious building program that town officials are embarking upon. Ultimately, it is up to the voters of town to decide what the future course will be.”

Selectman Joseph Norton didn’t know of any organized opposition to the feasibility study, and was optimistic that the town would at least take this first step.

“I don’t anticipate a lot of debate on it, but I think people will come out to ensure that it passes,” Norton said.

Regardless, the town still has a way to go to make people aware of the full scope of the master plan for Scituate’s buildings.

“Most people who are involved and who know what we’re doing [with the master plan] are in favor. They realize it has to be done. But that’s a small percentage of the town’s population,” Norton said. “The vast majority isn’t really aware of the plan yet. We will see if they accept it or not.”

Among other items on the Town Meeting warrant are proposals to move around funds to balance this fiscal year’s budget; purchase a backhoe; fund a portion of the restoration of the Town Pier; and rezone the town’s Water Resource Protection District to comply with the state’s request.

Visit to see a photo gallery of conditions at Gates Intermediate School.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail. com.