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Pickering parents: The conditions of Pickering Middle School in Lynn are ‘unacceptable’

Pickering Middle School in Lynn. (File Photo | Spenser R. Hasak)

LYNN — Parents are upset about the lack of priority being given to maintenance and repairs at Pickering Middle School, citing the poor condition of the building.

Mary Gatlin, a Pickering parent, spoke at last Thursday’s School Committee meeting and presented a letter signed by approximately 125 parents and Lynn voters in support of improved maintenance and safety enhancements at the school. She said the group was ready to mobilize volunteers and fundraise as needed.

“On a recent short tour for incoming parents and students, many of us were shocked at the conditions we saw in Pickering — stained and peeling paint, bubbling plaster, water stained ceilings, insulation peeling off pipes, plywood covering broken windows,” Gatlin said.

“The conditions that we saw were unacceptable. We can no longer continue to defer basic maintenance while hoping for a new school. We are asking for your help in triaging conditions at Pickering and using the summer months to transform it into a vibrant and welcoming space for our children and the staff people who work there.”

Heather Cahill said she understands Pickering is not the only school with poor conditions.

“However, I still feel that since my kid is going there, it is personal to me,” she said. “It seems like we’re just not fully equipped. I know your hearts are in the right place. You do want to see our kids have the best school they can possibly have, but I don’t think you’re able to give us what we need.”

School and city officials opted earlier this year to try again on replacing Pickering Middle School, which was built in 1916, in the wake of last spring’s failed vote.

A statement of interest was submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for replacement of the school, with the city waiting to see if it is accepted into the program again.

Michael Donovan, inspectional services chief, said this past year, the city spent about $108,000 making Pickering a little more safe and secure.

There’s been some work done on the ceilings and on life safety issues and rehab in the principal’s office corridor, or the 1953 section of the building. In the past decade, Donovan said there’s been lots of money spent in the school for boilers, painting, HVAC, flooring and lighting.

But he described it as putting “lipstick on a pig” — the building can be polished up, but it’s still going to be more than 100 years old.

“This year, there are no plans to do any major renovations or major work in the Pickering School,” Donovan said. “We’ve done some asbestos abatement earlier this year. We have other needs in the system elsewhere that preclude my department spending a lot of time in the school.”

Donovan said with repair work, life safety and code compliance is what his department focuses on, rather than cosmetic work, such as painting, needed at Pickering. This summer in the schools, he said the Inspectional Services Department is looking heavily at asbestos abatement and lead and copper compliance.

In February 2017, Donovan said testing was done on every single water tap in the schools — every single building, with the exception of the new Thurgood Marshall Middle School tested positive for some type of lead and/or copper in the water system.

The city spent more than $150,000 this year and will probably spend more in the coming year in the various schools on replacing water fountains, taps and piping to those fixtures, Donovan said, but it wasn’t clear if Pickering would be on the list this summer for that work.

He said the Brickett Elementary School has a boiler from 1976, which is going to cost about $350,000 to replace and draws a higher priority than painting at Pickering — the school was last painted in 2012.

“You described it as lipstick on a pig,” said School Committee member Brian Castellanos. “I don’t think that’s appropriate. I know there’s teachers out there that have to work (in the) school system that are there every day. And I know you’re in a tough position because we have limited resources, but there should be some initiatives put forward to collaborate.”

Castellanos said he understands cosmetic work might not be the highest priority, but walking into a school seeing at least the perception that something is being done could make a difference in a teacher’s morale.

Donovan said total renovation work needed at Pickering would cost approximately $40 million, which the city can’t afford without the MSBA’s help or without starving its other resources.

He said one of the many reasons the school was picked for replacement was because there are issues occuring at the school that are above and beyond what any maintenance department can do.

For instance, there’s nothing he can do about water leakage coming from the foundation into the classrooms in the basement — when the water comes in, he said it’s vacuumed up and the paint that peels off is dealt with. It’s something that will continue to occur at the school for as long as it exists.

“That school is a $40 million project to make it right today and that’s $40 million wasted,” said School Committee member John Ford. “We have to build a new Pickering, as we tried to do. We thought we had it and the people voted it down.

“If you could see the number of dollars that we spend every year, it’s just basically money we’re throwing away because it really doesn’t solve the problems, the real innate problems like cracks in the walls and cracks in the basement walls, the water leaking in … I think you’ve (as parents) just got to hopefully trust the fact that we’re going to keep your kids safe and that right now, might be the best we can do.”

Mayor Thomas M. McGee, chairman of the School Committee, said besides Pickering, there are lots of schools in Lynn in rough shape, and the city has limited resources to address those issues. To begin to address those needs, he said the city is trying again to replace Pickering and is working to develop a 5-year capital plan.

“I think the challenge is finding a way to meet the needs of all of the schools and all of the kids with the dollars that we have not invested in many years,” McGee said. “I really hope that the community understands that we need the support to get a new school built and it needs to be a priority.”

The School Committee voted to look into the Essex County Sheriff Department’s workforce to do cosmetic work at Pickering.

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