Some students from Marblehead’s Gerry School relocated due to steam pipe leak

The Gerry School in Marblehead. (Owen O'Rourke)

MARBLEHEAD — More than 150 students at the Elbridge Gerry School have been relocated to other schools following a steam pipe leak discovered Jan. 25.

The pipe was determined to be covered in asbestos, according to a presentation given at a School Committee meeting on Monday. The next day, the maintenance staff discovered the leak had gotten much worse and water was leaking from the ceiling in multiple locations. There was also sagging where there was existing cracks in the plaster.

First graders were moved to the Coffin School and students were kept off the second floor. Superintendent Maryann Perry and the school’s administration later decided to move the kindergarten classes to the Lower Malcolm. L. Bell Elementary School because they were unsure of other potential issues that could pop up, including mold problems, the long term effects of having the ventilation system shut down, and the possibility of additional ceiling tiles cracking or falling.

Daily air tests have been completed in the kindergarten classroom to monitor carbon monoxide levels, and all reading have been normal to date, according to the presentation, which is posted on the town’s website.

Built in 1906, the Gerry School is the oldest of the town’s nine school buildings, trailed by L.H. Coffin Elementary School, where Gerry students attend grades two and three.

The building, which houses only kindergarteners and first graders, is currently in the feasibility study phase with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the quasiindependent government authority that helps fund the construction of school buildings.

The school’s 1953 oil-fired boiler, which failed three times in 2015, needing emergency service calls, is currently holding water and steam but needs to be resealed to address a combustion fume issue, according to the report.

But many parents and former students don’t want to see the aging school close its doors. They’re worried the students will never return to the Elm Street school.

Benjamin Crowninshield, a parent, said the school is part of the National Historic District of Downtown Marblehead. He attempted to get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but was told that because it is within the district, it is already afforded the same protections.

He said he watched the former Rhodes School fall into disrepair in a similar fashion, only for it to be transferred to the housing department, repaired, and  turned into elderly housing.

“It was all on the same town dime,” he said. “So I don’t personally believe it when they say we don’t have the money (to repair the school).”

The school is named after the fifth vice president of the United States, he said.

Crowninshield and his wife, Kimberly, started a Facebook group titled “Save the Gerry School,” which gained more than 200 members in a single day.

“The pipe that ruptured was an original pipe for the boiler,” he said. “This is a pipe that is 112 years old in this building and over the course of that period the town has never found time or funding for maintenance on this historic building? Our intention is basically that we’re going to go our own route and see if we can save the building outside of this feasibility study.”

Many residents are concerned the feasibility study is not intended to find ways to fund repairs for the existing building, but to erect a new one, he said.

“The building itself is real,” said Crowninshield. “To throw that away we think is a complete waste.”

He described the school as beautiful with murals on the walls, tall ceilings, and wood floors.

“This magnificent old building has been sadly neglected while the town funded the new, wonderful high school and Glover School,” said Alfred Wilson on a GoFundMe page he set up to save the school. “The burst pipe that leaked steam into the attic last week is the original pipe from 1906. Did those long-gone engineers expect it to last till now?”

The effort raised more than $3,800 from 17 donors in its first day.

“This is our town, our history, our kids,” said Wilson in the post. “We choose to live in Marblehead because it is historic, special, and alive. We don’t shut things down when they get old; we maintain and upgrade them. Our police don’t still drive Model Ts, our firemen don’t drive dilapidated firetrucks, and our teachers and kids shouldn’t be in sadly neglected schools.”

The classrooms are undersized at about 600 square feet each. According to Master Plan documents on the town’s website, the state’s recommended size for a kindergarten classroom is 1,200 square-feet.

Because the school lacks a cafeteria, students eat in classrooms, building committee member David Harris told The Item last year. Student bathrooms, the gym and a space that doubles as an art and music classroom are located in the basement. The building is not handicap accessible. Students with mobility issues are reassigned to the Malcolm L. Bell School, which is divided into an upper and lower building.

Town Meeting approved $750,000 for a feasibility study to be completed to determine whether the building should be renovated or a new school should be built. During the feasibility study, the town and the MSBA are looking at all options.

Perry did not return calls seeking comment.

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