By Tara Vocino
The City Council voted 10-0 to take the Devens School property as previously discussed in executive session, with the appropriation of $9.9 million from ARPA funding to compensate the owner, during Monday’s City Council meeting at City Hall.
Ward 2 Councillor Stephanie Martins asked for an explanation as to why the matter was taken into executive session for the public’s clarification. City Solicitor Colleen Mejia replied that it falls into exemptions of open meeting law to discuss certain issues relating to real estate and its negotiations. Mejia clarified to this reporter that eminent domain is when a government entity takes private property for a public purpose.
Martins then inquired about the financial aspect of the property.
Chief Financial Officer Eric Demas said the city began negotiations with the owner of the property since the city’s 10-year lease was expiring. “From a purchasing standpoint, it didn’t make sense to go ahead with the lease due to the significant request that the owner had and increasing year after year under the terms proposed to the city,” Demas said. “The lease that they had prior was stagnant.”
Martins asked Schools Supt. Priya Tahiliani if there were any alternative placement options for the 53 high-needs students that utilized the Devens School. Tahiliani said they would have to be placed in out-of-district options since they’re in that school to receive specialized services. “In order to avoid that, we have to make a decision on that building,” Martins said.
Ward 6 Councillor Alfred Lattanzi asked Tahiliani how many students the Devens School building can hold. Tahiliani estimated 300 students.
Councillor-at-Large Richard Dell Isola said if the city didn’t buy the school, the city would have to pay the cost of transportation and tuition for out-of-district placements.
“My biggest concern would be the waiting list for those 53 students,” Tahiliani said. “The tuition would also be my second concern after the waiting list.”
She said the tuition costs for each of the 53 students is approximately $125,000 to $150,000 per year at the Lighthouse and the busing rate is about $80 per day, which is triple what they pay now, depending on students’ Individual Education Plan.
Ward 3 Councillor Darren Costa asked if it was valued as a school for highest and best use. He said it was approved in May 2008 as a senior living community. Mejia said appraisers looked at the Devens for best use and evaluated it as a school in more recent years.
“At the time that property was originally being discussed, the need, which still exists today, was to find affordable housing for seniors,” Chief of Staff Erin Deveney said. “Subsequently, a decision was made to utilize for another compelling purpose – to meet the educational needs of students who need those specialized services that the superintendent alluded to.”
Councillor-at-Large Stephanie Smith said she did the math and it’s around $7 million per year to send 53 students out-of-district. “I’m very disappointed that we took a year to come to this decision.”
Smith said she is in favor of eminent domain since they need space for students. She added that they can find somewhere else to put high-needs students.
Lattanzi said they might look back on it years later, wishing they bought it.
“I think that’s the exact same way we’ll feel 10 years from now if we don’t turn Pope John into a school,” Tahiliani said. “I think we should use the mistakes from the past and have foresight about the future.”
Lattanzi supported taking the school, agreeing with Smith.
Councillor-at-Large John Hanlon asked if it could be used by both high-needs and other students. Tahiliani said they could explore leveraging the space better. She said they haven’t determined where the high-needs students would go.
Smith made a motion for favorable action, and Ward 5 Councillor Vivian Nguyen seconded that motion.
Smith asked if they can use ARPA money with 100 percent confirmation. Demas replied in the affirmative as it falls within the guidelines.
Demas said if the council votes, the $9.9 figure will be valid and they’d execute the transfer, and if the owner disagreed with the value the owner could take them to court.
Councillor-at-Large Irene Cardillo asked Demas if they’ve given $9.9 million for housing, families, veterans or disabled persons for electricity from ARPA funding. Demas said the amounts shown as committed in the fall won’t impact the uncommitted amounts.
“I know we need schools, but we also need housing for disabled, veterans and the elderly,” Cardillo said. Demas said the city is using ARPA funding for senior meals and rental/mortgage assistance.
She asked if City Hall helps someone with food or paying electricity bills. Demas said he’s not involved in the day-to-day operations. He recommended that they call 311 and they will direct them to the appropriate source.