After years of plans, presentations and predictions, the City Council voted against approving and submitting the schematic design and $470,000 million budget for the new high school to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which sends the project back to the starting line. Councillors Steven Morabito, John Powers, Marc Silvestri and City Council President Patrick Keefe voted in favor of moving forward with the building design at the Wonderland site, with the rest of the council voting against it. Ward 2 Councillor Ira Novoselsky voted present.
City Council Vice President and former Revere High School teacher Joanne McKenna called the vote the most difficult decision she has made during her eight years on the City Council. “There are too many unanswered questions,” said McKenna. “I don’t want to burden my constituents with the cost of this project. I believe Revere cannot afford putting the high school at the Wonderland site.”
City CFO Richard Viscay continually assured councillors that the building project would not require a Prop 2 ½ override, but councillors remained skeptical about the city’s strategies to come up with enough money to cover the cost of the new school. And councilors were not supportive of several of the strategies proposed by Viscay and the Mayor’s Office, including adopting the Community Preservation Act, tweaking disbursements from the community investment act, a possible trash fee and increases in fees for permits and fines.
City councillors were also concerned about unknowns, such as the ultimate cost of the Wonderland site, which will be decided in court. The former owners of Wonderland are suing the city for what they believe is fair market value for the Wonderland parcel, which they feel is $40 to $100 million more than the $29.5 million the city intends to pay.
Ward 3 City Councillor Anthony Cogliandro asked about site soil work that the Conservation Commission is requiring at Wonderland. Senior Project Manager Brian Dakin said the site is still being assessed. “We have to start the process to get some answers,” said Dakin.
But it’s the number of unknowns and suppositions that have pushed councillors toward making a careful and cautious decision. Councillors are also concerned about plans to limit city spending to annual three percent increases. Viscay has said annual increases for public safety could be held to four percent.
Councillor-at-Large Gerry Visconti, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said councillors have been given numbers throughout the process, but the numbers have moved drastically. “I voted for Wonderland based on numbers that weren’t correct,” said Visconti. “I act on the side of caution. This is not my money but I’m acting like it is. Would I take this chance with my own money? No. I feel the risks at Wonderland outweigh the positives.”
But the audience in the City Council Chambers was filled with new school advocates who repeatedly warned that if the city abandoned the project, Revere High could lose its accreditation, which would handicap students applying to colleges and universities. There were also warnings that without an accredited high school, property values in Revere would plummet. Some warned that Revere was risking its place in line for MSBA funding for a new school. According to estimates, the MSBA would cover $180,000 for the building, while the city would be responsible for $294,000. And there were calls to do the right thing for the more than 7,000 students in Revere Public Schools and the need to address overcrowding.
But also in the audience on Monday night was Saugus Attorney Peter Flynn, who represents the Wonderland owners in their eminent domain lawsuit against the City of Revere. Flynn said he had received the city’s response to the complaint filed on November 17. He characterized the city’s position as “pretty standard stuff’ and added that the most significant thing about the response is that it means the lawsuit is moving forward.
“We are now properly in court and we are off to the races,” said Flynn whose Saugus-based law firm specializes in eminent domain cases. And Flynn is watching how the city handles the decision on the Wonderland site, noting all the details.
He said that in the city’s order of taking there’s no mention of a school until the very end. “They say the site is for a school – a school is a public purpose. Will there be a problem if they sell it for any and all municipal use? I don’t know if that’s a big deal,” said Flynn, who added that the city is in a pickle.
Mayor Brian Arrigo, who has been touting a new high school since his first campaign for mayor in 2015, was so outraged by the council’s vote that he didn’t speak. Instead, he released a blistering statement the following day. “The city of Revere witnessed a grave failure in the city Council Chambers Monday night, when six elected leaders of our city – including a former teacher and a former mayor – voted no against moving forward the schematic design of the proposed New Revere High School,” wrote the mayor. “This week they proved that the City Council neither values education nor prioritizes the future of our city. I expect residents both with and without children in our public school system to be outraged by this decision.”
Arrigo accused councillors of avoiding the task of developing a new school. He said they were too timid and distracted by hypothetical uncertainties and political implications.
Of course, councillors who voted against the project say it was the uncertainties of how the city would pay for the project that convinced them to vote the way they did. “The financial strategies to pay for this project are built on a house of cards,” said Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto.
The next meeting of the Revere High School Building Committee is scheduled for March 1. The Committee may turn its attention to returning the project to the current site of the high school. While that option may save millions that the city intended to spend on the Wonderland site, the current site of the high school comes with complications and challenges and the possibility of the need for more eminent domain takings. And there is also the time. Dakin has said all of the planning, design and engineering work done during the past year would need to be done again, while the clock ticked on with escalating costs of construction.
(Editor’s Note: Members of the Revere City Council respond in open letter to Mayor Arrigo’s statement regarding City Council vote on new high school.