Lowell, Massachusetts: a city on a journey down the rabbit hole …
August 31, 2017
We insist on the downtown location … council vote or not!
The Lowell School Committee is apparently questioning the legality of a city council vote conducted by Mayor Ed Kennedy on June 20 in the council chambers at city hall. A 5-4 vote determined the Cawley site to be the chosen location for the high school.
The school committee is now contending they haven’t had enough say in the site selection process … but the public record indicates otherwise.
A thorough review of the matter dating back to 2008 should be enough to clear the city council body of any voting indiscretions.
Since 2008, the school committee has been the leading influence in determining the future location of Lowell High School. However, members didn’t have an appetite for the Cawley site back then so they declined a proposal by the Lowell Plan to move the school out of downtown.
Lowell Plan Executive Director Jim Cook has since worked hard to ensure that the high school remains in the current downtown location. This commitment was cemented in 2010, when Cook hired “renown” urban planner Jeff Speck who spent that summer living in downtown Lowell, family in tow.
Speck’s commission produced a report entitled “The Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan,” a document that included a preliminary review and cursory analysis of suggested locations for a new Lowell High School.
Speck posited a scenario for renovation and expansion of the existing high school versus creating a new campus style complex at the Cawley site. Taken at face value, the report contains some significant errors and reflects the ambivalence of an urban planner torn between two possible solutions.
Nonetheless, Speck publicly endorsed the current location as good urban practice. But in fairness, his job was to appease Cook and his “blue ribbon” associates who were outspoken in their advocacy for the downtown location. In fact, Cook did not permit Speck to answer public inquiries about the report.
Fast forward to May 2013, when the school committee engaged OMR Architects of West Acton, Mass. to complete a master plan for Lowell’s twenty-nine schools k-12. Their work involved completing a comprehensive existing conditions study and facilities assessment at a cost of about $330,000.
In October 2013, OMR presented the downtown and Cawley options to the school committee facilities sub-committee and the full committee, who drove the process. Both committees promised public forums after the 2013 election and swearing-in ceremonies. However, school committee public forums never took place.
The private forums conducted during the OMR study involved school administrators, staff, maintenance personnel, teachers and students among other hand picked participants. Once the report was complete, the school committee turned its attention to funding the recommended improvements to the k-12 schools.
On March 19, 2014, the school committee, firmly behind the downtown option, voted to request state funding via the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) via “Statements of Interest (SOI)” for five citywide school projects as assembled by OMR. Although a high school project was included as one SOI, the document did not offer the Cawley option, only downtown.
To add fuel to the confusion, the school committee misinterpreted MSBA rules and were told by the authority the city could only submit one SOI. The k-8 projects would have to wait.
The MSBA submittal process also required city council approval of the school committee’s “Statement of Interest.” Confusion engulfed the city council chambers the night of the council vote. As a result, the deliberation was fractured and rushed.
Why wasn’t the council kept abreast of the year long effort of the school committee involving about a half-billion dollars in projects by today’s prices? To answer this question, perhaps it would help to shed more light by delving a little deeper into the history of the project.
Bolstered by the Speck report released in October 2010, Jim Cook continued to tout the current downtown site as the best location for the high school. Cook made a bizarre public declaration to that effect during an interview with the Lowell Sun published on August 4, 2013 while the OMR study was in progress.
In a report dated November 13, 2013 and presented to the school committee, OMR provided a cost analysis of alternative sites for the high school including the current downtown location, the Cawley site and the South Common site.
OMR’s downtown option had a project cost of $245 million, $45 million cheaper than the projection for the Cawley site, which was $290 million. Was this wishful thinking?
OMR’s projected project cost for the downtown option was close to $100 million cheaper than the Skanska/Perkins-Eastman (the city’s OPM) projection. In fact, the OPM fleshed out Cawley vs. Option 3 to close to even, with various unknowns affecting both sites still to be sorted-out.
With all that said, there’s a glaring question that you may have picked up on: Who gave Jim Cook the authority to guarantee the current high school site location?
Cook said that he had preliminary discussions with both MA Senator Eileen Donaghue and U. S. Representative Niki Tsongas’s regional director Brian Martin, who had by then been awarded the position of Lowell High School headmaster as the uncontested lone finalist. But again, who was giving the orders?
On March 24, 2014, former Deputy Superintendent of Lowell Public Schools Jay Lang provided an explanation of the school committee’s (misguided) March 19 vote to submit five school projects to the MSBA. This faux-pas required a redo the following week. Meanwhile, the false information was relayed to the city council, adding to the confusion.
At the April 2, 2014 meeting of the school committee, David Conway corrected Lang’s comments about the five SOIs and the school committee voted to choose the high school project involving the downtown location as their sole SOI to the MSBA.
Next stop was to the city council for a vote on April 8, 2014. A sense of urgency was then laid on the city council because the SOI was due by the April 11 deadline, so the city council obliged the school committee with a unanimous yea vote to avoid a mandatory year wait for the next opportunity to file.
Much of the confusion experienced by the city council that night can be attributed to the school committee’s lack of understanding of the MSBA process up to that point and Lang’s presentation of false information to the council on March 24.
Lang also told the council the city could expect an 80% reimbursement rate on a $245 million high school project at the current location. This was a convincing argument and a primary impetus for the council to go forward.
Lang’s letter verifies that, on March 24, neither he nor the school committee members knew that the MSBA would not accept a multiple project application. As a result, the school committee selected the renovations/additions to the high school in its current location as the preferred project. The submittal was corrected for the hand-off to the city council for a vote.
In essence, the city council voted to approve the school committee’s preferred option of the downtown site on the basis of trust. Ironically, the Cawley site plan was developed because of the MSBA requirement to also submit a “new” construction site if possible.
The city council basically rubber stamped the school committee’s “Statement of Interest” and newly hired City Manager Kevin Murphy had it forwarded to the MSBA!
The school committee drove the bus on the “preferred option” which was downtown. The city council didn’t really know what it was approving because the OMR report contained over 3000 pages and they had less than a week to vote on the school committee’s revised “Statement of Interest.”
The process got mired down in the missteps of the school committee and the school administration. Regardless, the city council approved the recommendation of the school committee unanimously and with very little knowledge of what was in the OMR report.
Subsequently, upon receiving a green light from the MSBA, the city hired Skanska USA Building consulting as the Owner’s Project Manager and Perkins Eastman|DPC as the Architect/Project Management team to complete the preliminary studies phase including the feasibility study while following the MSBA process.
The Cawley and others sites, were brought in to satisfy the MSBA requirement for a new construction alternative. The city council worked hard to keep up with the whirlwind process and managed to meet all the requirements set forth by the MSBA.
The Cawley site, and others, were presented to the School Building Committee, a panel of public officials formed to oversee the design process for the city. The School Building Committee voted on a shortlist of four options. The four options sent to the MSBA on May 18, 2017 included three downtown options and the Cawley site.
Jim Cook’s public posturing and rhetoric ebbed then ceased after Kevin Murphy became city manager. But the Lowell Plan director was selected to be a member of the School Building Committee.
A couple of days before the city council vote, the School Building Committee voted on a “Preferred Option.” That vote resulted in a tie between Option 3 (9 votes) and the Cawley site (9 votes). Their verdict was reported to the city council.
By June 20, the city council was ready to move on to the Schematic Design phase.
Few expected the Cawley site to be the final selection of the city council until it actually happened on June 20. After 64 members of the public delivered their thoughts and preferences in the council chambers, the council voted on the Cawley site, the five story option.
Before the Lowell elections in 2013, I interviewed several candidates about their vision for the future of City of Lowell. I asked city council candidate Jim Milinazzo why Jim Cook had so much power over the city relative to the high school issue. Milinazzo replied, “George, you’re giving him too much credit.” I interpreted this to mean that Cook was only following orders. But whose orders was he following and why? An official explanation from the Lowell Plan is still in order.
Other questions remain unanswered about the determination of the high school location. But one fact is clear. The Lowell School Committee has had a say from day one. In fact, their efforts can be credited as the driving factor that led to the ultimate decision of the Lowell City Council to locate the high school at the Cawley site using a fair and transparent process that was meticulously executed.
Apparently, the process was flawed from the very beginning long before the city council did their job.
In essence, the school committee has accused the city council of conducting an illegal vote. A thorough investigation may be the best way to completely vindicate the city council at this point.
And the public record will not only support the council’s position if such an inquiry is started, it may also incriminate several high ranking officials who have tried to control the process for several years running. No one wants this to happen but time is of the essence and the project must not be delayed any further. The council has voted and damages are accruing.
What’s the status of OMR’s 10-year Capital Plan for Lowell’s schools?
With construction prices constantly on the rise, what ever happened to plans to pursue funding for needed improvements and additions to the k-8 schools?