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LYNN — A request to transfer $1 million in free cash funds to the Lynn school department to fund HVAC airflow improvements in 10 school buildings was tabled by the City Council Tuesday over a dispute about the former Thurgood Marshall Middle School.
“Normally we give the School Committee anything they ask for,” said City Council President Darren Cyr. “But there’s been an issue going on for several years at the Thurgood Marshall school. “
Cyr expressed his hope that the building, which he said has become a safety concern for the neighborhood, could be transferred from the School Committee to the city so it could be sold to developers to be turned into senior housing.
“It’s a dilapidated, falling-down building. There were several fires in that building, and that was on one day. Police can’t go into the building because of the hazardous materials,” said Cyr, who also serves as the ward councilor for the neighborhood.
“There are overdoses taking place, drug dealing happening on the property, prostitution happening on the property. It’s become a real blight on the neighborhood.”
At the council meeting, Cyr implied that the School Committee’s reluctance to transfer the building to the city was the reason for his call to table the transfer of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) funds.
The HVAC improvements are intended to fix the ventilation systems in the 10 oldest school buildings, according to School Committee member Jared Nicholson. The systems had been blocked off by the city in the 1970s during an oil crisis.
“These issues have been in the buildings for a really long time. I think the COVID situation has really shined a light on it,” said Nicholson.
The project began in the fall and was funded by school department savings. Nicholson said that the additional funding requested from the City Council was to make up a difference in the cost of the project and the amount that could be funded through savings.
Ward 2 Councilor Rick Starbard said after the meeting that the tabling of the funds was partly related to a potential source of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to finance the HVAC improvements.
“The financial stability officer weighed in on the possibility that there could be some CARES funding available for that,” said Starbard. “If we can use some CARES money for it instead of taking free cash, that’s a route we certainly should go.”
Mayor Thomas M. McGee, chairman of the School Committee, expressed interest at the committee’s meeting last Thursday in transferring ownership of the property to the city, but some of his fellow committee members were concerned about losing the property, since there is not much land left in the city to build new schools.
“My perspective in this position is to move forward to get it off to the City Council and allow them to make a concerted effort to make something work for the community at large,” McGee said last Thursday.
“We are tight for space in the Lynn Public Schools,” Committee Vice Chair Donna Coppola said at last week’s meeting. “If we could have a piece of that property, even if some of it doesn’t have to be turned over at one time. If we have land for preschoolers only, that would open up space in our schools.”
She suggested using the accessible money and space to build a preschool with a senior center on part of the property and elderly housing on the other.
The committee voted two years ago to demolish the building, but the situation was complicated by the fact that asbestos was discovered in the building, significantly increasing the estimated cost of demolition.
According to Cyr, several developers had expressed renewed interest in purchasing the property with the intent of turning it into senior housing.
“My goal as the ward councilor of the neighborhood where that school is, is to protect the health and safety of the residents of the neighborhood around it,” said Cyr. “If we could bring senior housing in there like the neighbors want, it would dramatically change the neighborhood.”
For now, the transferring of HVAC funding for the schools will be tabled until the next City Council meeting, and the transferring of the school was tabled by the School Committee to discuss the issue further with the council at a future meeting.
“I know that a meeting is being set up and I’m looking forward to hearing what will be presented there,” said Nicholson.