LYNN — School Committee members were scheduled to come up with an action plan for a potential new Pickering Middle School on Thursday night, but were instead unpleasantly surprised to learn that the state has turned down their proposal for a new school.
Mayor Thomas M. McGee, chairman of the School Committee, received a letter from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) on Wednesday, telling him the city has not been invited into the MSBA program to build a new Pickering in the wake of last year’s failed vote.
McGee shared the news with the School Committee and explained that although it wasn’t stated in the letter, the rejection was likely due to the city’s financial challenges.
The city had to exhaust a $14 million state loan to balance its budget for the past two years and is looking at a potential $5 million budget gap for next year. In addition, over a five-year period, the mayor said the city is looking at hundreds of millions of dollars of capital needs.
The city can submit another statement of interest to the MSBA, a quasi-independent government authority that helps fund the construction of school buildings, in its next round, from Jan. 4 to April 12, 2019.
“I think we’re all disappointed,” McGee said. “As we try to resolve what’s an ongoing financial crisis, a $5 million deficit looking at 2020, we are really trying to get our hands around that and address the ongoing operating challenges that we can hopefully find a solution to that and work as quickly as possible to get back in the mix.”
School Committee member Michael Satterwhite said if the city were to submit another statement, a big obstacle would be confirming that Lynn has the funds for another feasibility study for a new school building.
Learning that the school district had not been invited back into the program was a surprise.
“We’re all disappointed that we weren’t invited back in,” Satterwhite said. “Their assessment that we would benefit from a little more planning is spot on. I’ve been able to go to Marshall (Middle School) a couple of times. It breaks my heart that other students won’t be able to experience a building like that. It’s about equity, giving the kids the building they deserve. It’s something we have to continue to put forward.”
School officials have said Pickering is the school with the largest need for replacement in the city. There’s an overcrowding issue and an issue with the condition of the building, which includes heating problems.
Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler said he was equally disappointed by the rejection.
“Nonetheless I remain steadfast in my commitment to the students and teachers at Pickering,” said Tutwiler. “We will continue to make sure that, despite not being invited back into the process, the students at Pickering are served well.”
School Committee vice-chair Donna Coppola said student enrollment figures and large class sizes in the Lynn Public Schools, which has more than 16,000 students, are a major reason for a new school. Elementary class sizes are nearing 30 kids, those kids will eventually move on to the middle school level, where space will be needed.
Coppola said the crunch may keep families from moving to Lynn, as they wouldn’t want their kids in elementary school with class sizes of 30 kids or to attend a Pickering that’s falling apart.
The mayor said the MSBA asks that statements of interest only be accepted for a community with the ability to fund the project in the next two years. In addition, he said the MSBA wants to see the city has a good bond rating — Lynn’s has been downgraded in the past two periods — and a plan in place to address their infrastructure needs.
The city has enlisted UMass-Boston’s Edward J. Collins Center to compile a five-year capital plan, according to McGee.
“I realize the need for new schools and how badly we need them,” said School Committee member John Ford. “Before we look at going into the pipeline, we need to take a hard look at where we stand financially. We have to look at whether this money is worth the risk versus the possibility of not being able to cross the finish line.”
Last year, voters said no to a nearly $200 million proposal to building two new middle schools, rejecting the measure by a decisive margin. The first question, which asked voters to approve the construction of the schools, failed 63 to 37 percent. The second question, which sought approval to pay for them, lost 64 to 36 percent.
If approved, the city would have built a 652-student school near the Pine Grove Cemetery and Breeds Pond Reservoir on Parkland Avenue. A second school would have housed 1,008 students on McManus Field on Commercial Street.
The new schools would have added an additional $200 to the average tax bill for a single-family home for the next 25 years.