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A step toward redeveloping vacant school

Council now controls fate of site near downtown

The Charles G. Devine School has been closed for six years.
The Charles G. Devine School has been closed for six years.Elaine Cushman Carroll for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Six years after the last group of students of the Charles G. Devine School gathered their lunch boxes and said farewell to their teachers, officials have taken the first step toward making the property a productive part of the Randolph economy.

Throughout the spring, the School Committee tussled with the Town Council over who should control the future of the site, which sits on the edge of a residential area less than a block from North Main Street.

In an e-mail released after a May 20 joint meeting of the two bodies, Town Manager David C. Murphy urged the committee, which claimed ownership of the school, to stop holding it hostage, because delays are “sucking the taxpayers’ value out of the building.”

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The issue was resolved on May 29, when the School Committe voted 4 to 3 to turn the property over to the town. The committee added a recommendation to keep the open space on the property available for recreation.

The Town Council voted to accept the property, and council president Arthur G. Goldstein said he expects the council’s Economic Development Subcommittee to begin discussions on its future soon.

Councilors said that before any decision to sell or reuse the property, a feasibility study will be needed and community input will be sought.

Pressure to make a decision has been building as people interested in redeveloping the property have approached Murphy, who described the site as “a valuable piece of the North Randolph business district.”

Murphy said the town cannot afford to ignore inquiries for potential uses that include residential, elder care, and higher education facilities. Although he declined to name those who have expressed interest, he said such ventures would attract customers to nearby restaurants, shops, and other businesses.

Others have suggested a police station, town-owned veterans’ housing, a charter school, or high-end condominiums.

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The former school sits on a 2.3-acre parcel at 55 Old St. and abuts two other town-owned properties — an open field and a wooded area totaling about 15 acres, officials said.

The original Devine school was a 15,000-square-foot wood-framed structure built in 1929, with a 36,400-square-foot addition from the 1950s, Michael Caliri, school maintenance director, said in an interview.

Interim school Superintendent Steven Moore said that for many years, he has favored getting rid of the property, which was last used as an early education center in July 2008 and has since housed a police academy and a food pantry. It currently is used for storage, he said.

At the May 20 meeting, Councilor James F. Burgess Jr. made clear that he didn’t want the School Committee to control the redevelopment.

“This isn’t your business,’’ he told committee members. “Your business is to educate the kids.”

In a later interview, Burgess said, “I have a lot of passion for the building,” noting that he, his siblings, and their mother attended the school. He added that the town has a history of making good use of its old school buildings, including Town Hall, which used to be a high school and an elementary school.

“We could look at it for a police station,” he said of the Devine. “We’ve talked about veterans’ transitional housing for it. I don’t have a desire to sell it.”

Town Councilor Paul J. Meoni, who lives in North Randolph, said he’s happy that the building now is in the hands of the Town Council and the town manager, because declining enrollments mean the schools don’t need the space.

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Meoni, the council’s representative on the School Committee, said he proposed the recreational space amendment and was heartened to hear support from other councilors.

Other residents have told him they want to keep the area residential and “don’t want it turned into a business property,” he said.

The debate also highlights tensions between the Town Council, made up mainly of people with many years in town government, and the School Committee, which six of the seven members joined in 2010, when the town restructured its government, or later.

Committee member Bruce Pontbriand, an educator who lives in North Randolph, said that while he “implicitly” trusts Murphy, he also needs to ask tough questions on behalf of North Randolph residents, including Russ Street neighbors who are “still stinging” from rezoning that allowed part of the Pacella Park industrial area to be redeveloped into 250 condominiums.

Before the final vote on May 29, School Committee member Ida Gordon said the committee has not been getting the proper respect from the council. She asked for more time and wanted assurances that the open space recommendation would be heeded.

“We’re all elected officials here and we’re asking for something in return,” she said. “I’m not going to vote [in favor] until we have a conversation.”

Also voting against the measure were Abdi Ibrahim and Rebecca M. Robateau, who said they wanted to wait for the July 1 arrival of new Superintendent Thomas Anderson. They also cited unfinished work on the School Department master plan.

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Chairman Emmanuel Mecha said the property is not included in the master planning process and postponing the vote would just delay use of the property.

Committee member Keith Wortzman, the chairman of the School Building Subcommittee and a 20-year veteran of town government, said it was time to say “bye-bye” to a building that is in “deplorable condition” and would cost “astronomical” amounts to bring back to code.

Murphy said the Devine sale is part of a program to generate much-needed revenue by selling surplus town-owned property. The town has been conducting an inventory of properties and recently auctioned off several.

“As we encourage private business owners to reinvest in their properties, it is important that we lead by example,” he said in the e-mail. “A vibrant reuse of this property could have a substantial positive impact on the surrounding small business community.”


Elaine Cushman Carroll can be reached at elaine_carroll@msn.com.