Was the Lowell City Council caught unprepared & ill advised?
Congratulations to the Lowell Plan for its monumental win last night at the Lowell School Committee meeting. Evidently, Jim Cook was successful in working behind the scenes to get Lowell’s state and federal delegation, the City Council, the School Committee and the Lowell Public School administration on board with the Lowell Plan’s mandate to keep Lowell High School downtown.
The result? Belvidere NIMBY’s can stop worrying about the High School moving to the Cawley Stadium area … at least for the time being.
The discussion and subsequent vote at last night’s School Committee meeting confirmed the “City’s” interest in proceeding with renovating and rebuilding Lowell High School at its present location in downtown Lowell, while forgoing the capital improvement needs of the middle and elementary schools until next year’s round of state funding becomes available. Thus far, the process has been handled in true riverboat gambler style as is the trademark of the Lowell political establishment dating back to the 1980s.
As noted by School Committeeman Dave Conway, “we need to look at what happened 30 years ago, and be sure that what we do is done properly.” Mr. Conway is referring to all the school buildings along Arcand Drive that Mr. Speck determined to be functionally obsolete and must now be torn down for the new plan to be implemented. So what does “make sure it’s done properly this time” suggest? The process being executed now is “… deja vu all over again.” as Yogi Berra once said. Oh, well its just millions in taxpayer dollars down the drain. There’s plenty more where that came from. Forge on!
So much for accountability.
Perhaps School Committeeman Steve Gendron summed it up best when he said, “We need all 5 projects to proceed simultaneously, but because of Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) rules, we can’t bundle them all into one project. The City must put forth the project that’s most likely to win.” Oops!
Gendron continued, “The High School pops out as the facility that will gain acceptance from the MSBA.” This means that the High School project will bring the most money to the city based on a formula that calculates that (with MSBA approval) the state would pay about 80% of the $245 million price tag for the Jeff Speck version option #1D, as roughly sketched in his Downtown Evolution Plan report to the Lowell Plan completed in October of 2010.
Option #1D of the report outlines Speck’s proposed process of renovating and rebuilding the current high school in its present location. The Lowell coalition hopes this approach will net the City the most money of the k-12 funding applications. However, please note that the Jeff Speck report was never formally considered or approved by the City Council. Perhaps this is because of the difficulty explaining how a nebulous private agency succeeded in gaining unilateral control of the City of Lowell’s “evolution” going forward.
Of course, the MSBA has plenty to say about how the $500 million allocation in their control is spent. So even though the OMR Architects 3,000 page study and the show of solidarity by the City’s political institution will carry weight, the MSBA will come out late summer or early fall to review the City’s recommendations on-site and form their own impression.
It’s interesting that the OMR Architects final report doesn’t satisfactorily explain the MSBA process to the School Committee. Doesn’t their contract include guidance for working with the MSBA? Wasn’t OMR paid $300k for their services? The hand-off to MSBA is no place to cut corners.
As Gendron noted, “The MSBA will shepherd us down the path, recommending solutions to the problems we’ve presented.” Of course, Mr. Gendron envisions a gallant army on white horses will come to the rescue and sort out all of Lowell’s problems. No really, he does.
Fellow Committeeman Dave Conway noted, “I also attended the meeting with MSBA officials in Boston, and there was some confusion that was cleared up about what we can and can’t do. But I agree with the recommendations of the Superintendent.” (that the HS should be renovated in place and not moved)
Conway was referring to the confusion that wafted over 2 recent City Council meetings when School Dept. Deputy Director Jay Lang made statements that were in fact not true. The City Council voted at the first meeting based on bad information about the process provided by Lang. These discussions are available for viewing at LTC.org so I won’t reiterate here. If you look at the video, note City Councilor Corey Belanger’s reaction during the second meeting’s discussion. Also note Councilor Kennedy’s confusion about what’s being discussed. Also note, in the first meeting, Rita Mercier’s comment that “It’s probably time for the City’s Facilities Subcommittee to review the situation.” even as the horse leaving the barn is passed by the cart.
Pursuant to the above paragraph, note Mr. Lang’s own confusion as recently as March 24, when he offered his flawed explanation of the process to Lowell2020. As a result, the delegation jumped aboard, and the City Council unanimously voted “yea” after asking the right questions, then receiving false information.
Although community and downtown stakeholder forums, originally promised for last November, are now being pushed to the fall when the MSBA comes to Lowell, it’s not expected the “move the high school” movement will gain any more traction than it has now. But you never know, perhaps there are powerful advocates biding their time. The School Committee is hoping otherwise, and have gone “all in” while praying for a straight flush.
A couple of possibilities were discussed at last night’s meeting. There was disappointment about the misunderstanding about bundling all 5 projects involving k-12 so that all schools could proceed on a fast track simultaneously. But school committee members seemed to take solace in the role of the MSBA to find solutions to the City’s problems by saying, “we’re just throwing this out there.” From my experience working in the public sector, it usually doesn’t work that way. The state is highly astute in identifying a City consortium’s end around run to get the money flowing quickly. The loss of Kevin Murphy as a State Rep. weakens the delegation, which could also prove to be problematic. So Lowell is facing stormy waters throughout a process that will likely take several years to sort out.
It’s possible that the outcome of Round 1 could result in MSBA rejecting the high school proposal entirely, to focus on the more crucial needs of the middle schools as preferred by Councilor Kennedy. Or, they could offer to approve a combination of solutions that may or may not involve the high school. So as Jay Lang has stated rather weakly, ” … its early in the process.”
As for Lowell’s downtown economic development strategy … it’s taking a significant hit. It’d be unseemly for this unanimously joined Lowell coalition to say to the MSBA in September, “We’ve changed our minds. We’ve decided our priority is to move the high school out of downtown.” That would expose a great weakness in our political system … one that in fact DOES exist.
Stay tuned for Round 2 in the fall. Here’s a message to Lowell’s political establishment. In the words of Oliver Hardy, “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
Other related posts:
How much power does Jim Cook have in Lowell? Is the Lowell High School capital plan a done deal?
Open Letter to the Lowell School Committee
Lowell business leaders: “Move Lowell High School!”
Lowell, MA is clearly at a fork in the road.
Updated April 3, 2014 at 5:43pm