By Neil Zolot
The City Council approved an appropriation of $150,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to hire an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM) to study using modular classrooms at schools – by a margin of 6-4 – at their Sept. 25 regular meeting. “If we want to resolve temporary overcrowding, the easiest and most cost-effective way is to install modular units,” Mayor Carlo DeMaria told the members at the meeting. “There’ll be a feasibility study to determine the degree of overcrowding at each school, an analysis of where we could put them.”
The mayor said he hopes modules can be in place at various schools by September 2024, but pointed out that topography and space will preclude them at the High School and Devens School, which was also explained by the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Erin Deveney at the September 11 meeting. Councillors Darren Costa, Michael Marchese, Stephanie Martins and Stephanie Smith dissented.
In a September 11 vote to table the proposal, Costa, at-large member John Hanlon, Marchese and Smith dissented. Martins said her vote was based on feedback from “families who are willing to deal with overcrowding until there’s a building,” a reference to long-term plans to build a new High School and convert the current High School into a Middle School.
“I haven’t heard one person say they want modules,” Smith added. “I love the long-term plan. It’s the short-term plan I disagree with.” She’s wondering if the former Pope John High School could be ready by next September instead, which she admitted would take a lot of work.
Mayor DeMaria countered that the former Catholic high school has been set aside for housing.
Costa asked how many parking spaces might be lost to modules. The Mayor answered, “We’ll have to see what the OPM says.”
The Mayor said an old administration and School Department estimate put the cost of having the modules at $13-14 million, but he cautioned that that number is obsolete.
As discussion turned to the long-term plan, the mayor outlined plans to build a new Everett High School, preferably near Rivergreen Playground, and make the current High School into a Middle School. Then the K-8 neighborhood schools could become K-5 or K-6 elementary schools, depending on whether a Middle School includes 6th grade. “It will decrease overcrowding at all the schools,” he said.
Mayor DeMaria stated that he would like to see a new High School have a full vocational program to provide some students “a career path without college debt.”
One way or another, it won’t be cheap. The current cost to build a new Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield is $314.4 million. Wakefield is building its own new High School, which will cost $273 million, including $60 million from the state School Building Authority (MSBA), about 21% of the cost. Wakefield’s Galvin Middle School cost a now affordable looking $73 million, but it didn’t seem so at the time over a decade ago. Saugus’ new Middle/High School complex opened in September 2020 and cost $160.7 million.
Some cost for a vocational capacity could be recouped through regionalization, if possible. “A full vocational program will be a cost to the community, but will be a benefit,” the Mayor feels.
Discussions and meetings have been underway with the MSBA and state legislators, including on higher aid rates for Gateway Cities, midsize cities that were once economic hubs offering a “gateway” to success, but now under economic stress, including Everett and neighboring Revere. Pope John is not eligible for MSBA funds because it was not a municipal school.
At the outset of the meeting in Public Participation, Peggy Serino called the modules tin cans and wondered if using them is a “a back door attempt to tear down Pope John.” More reasonably, she asked if there would be cost estimates on installing and using the modules.
The Mayor took exception to that characterization of the modules, pointing out they have heat, air conditioning and water. “I appreciate parent’s concerns about the modules, but there’s a misconception,” he said. “They’re full-blown classrooms and heavily used in colleges and high schools where space is needed.”