Opinion

A lot of questions in Marblehead

Problems sometimes have a way of getting ahead of solutions designed to resolve them and that seems to be scenario unfolding around Marblehead’s Gerry School.

A town institution built in 1906 before most of the current students’ great-grandparents were born, the Gerry is a school without students following a steam pipe leak discovered two weeks ago.

Former Gerry first-graders are attending the Coffin School in the wake of the leak’s detection and kindergarten classes were moved to the Lower Malcolm L. Bell Elementary School. All of this moving and relocating in a small school system is putting stress on parents, including 200 who attended a Monday meet on the Gerry’s problems.

Named for Elbridge Gerry, a 19th century governor and vice president more famously known as the inspiration for the term “gerrymandering,” Gerry is Marblehead’s oldest school and complaints about its problem-plagued plumbing are matched by affection for its history and architecture.

Solidly built with brick and perched on a hill, Gerry embodies a lot of Marblehead’s love for fortitude and tradition. Its boiler failed three times during the brutal winter of 2015. Its classrooms are undersized by modern school construction standards and students eat in their classrooms because the school lacks a cafeteria.

But town residents love the Gerry enough to launch a Facebook group called “Save the Gerry School” and set up a GoFundMe page for the venerable building. Town Meeting authorized spending $750,000 to study the Gerry’s future with options ranging from renovation to replacement. The building’s worsening condition may narrow the range of options down to two or three, or maybe only one.

Is the Gerry worth saving? More than a few people around Marblehead have probably asked the question. But finding the answer involves asking several other questions, including, “What will it take to save the Gerry?”

Money: That’s the simple answer. Old buildings can be modernized and renovated but the price tags that come along with that work can be scary. It’s hard to put a price tag on history and the tradition and family ties closely binding brick and mortar to childhood memories.

State officials are familiar with old Massachusetts schools like Gerry and they are experienced in reviewing feasibility studies. Make no mistake, Gerry’s renovation or reconstruction will depend in no small part on state-approved spending.

The town will bear a share of the cost of any option involved in preserving the school or building a new one. Town officials are responsible for deciding how that local expense fits into Marblehead’s property tax levy, its capital budget stretching out a decade or two from now and its annual budget.

It is always nice to be able to talk about spending money in the abstract without allowing emotion to intrude on the discussion. But the Gerry is an emotional subject for town residents, especially the parents who invested their trust in the school staff and, by extension, the school. Their lives have been unbalanced to varying degrees by the necessity to relocate their children to the Coffin and the Bell. They want to be involved in answering questions being asked about Gerry’s future.

The kids who started the school year in Gerry’s kindergarten and first-grade classes won’t have a say in the school’s future. But the disruption forcing their relocation to other schools has brought the Gerry’s fate to the front burner.

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