The Westfield News Investigates: new school too big?

WESTFIELD — Construction of a new elementary school in this city has spawned rancor often reserved for debates of the death penalty or euthanasia. Charges and countercharges of secrecy, misinformation, and cronyism abound.
At issue is a 600-plus pupil school proposed for the site of the former Ashley Street School, a project that has drawn both strong support and bitter opposition.
The plan to raze the 100-year-old building and construct a 96,000 square foot, two story school that will cost almost $36 million continues to move ahead. According to city officials, the school is slated to open in the fall of 2013, and the city expects to put the project out to bid within the next 30 days.
The state has used the carrot end of the carrot/stick approach to building schools, offering to shoulder a larger percent of the cost if the city follows its “model school” approach. City officials — from the mayor to school committee to city council — are pursuing that route, with the state reimbursement totaling close to 68 percent.
Supporters say that building a large, new elementary school will enable the city to consolidate three schools and close two. In place of old, technologically inadequate schools, the city will have a state-of-the-art, green building that will take its students into the future. The new school will affect savings of scale. The model school project will mean the city will spend less for a brand new school than it would on renovating and maintaining older schools.
However, opposition has emerged as details of the project have come to light. Most dissent comes from neighbors, but a few city officials have also questioned the plan.
Those who dispute the benefits of the project say officials have rushed to decision on weighty matters, distorted information to make the project fit the zoning laws, misrepresented details to the public, and ignored legitimate concerns related to traffic, open space, and the quality of life in the neighborhood.
Local homeowners are suing city officials in the hopes of blocking the project. Thomas Smith, a Holyoke resident whose mother lives at 36 Cross Street, spoke on behalf of the opposition in an interview in their lawyer’s office in Springfield. Smith said opposition is based on more than a “not-in-my-backyard” response.
The 10-taxpayer suit claims the city can’t use the land adjacent to the present school because it is protected under Article 97 of the Commonwealth’s Constitution. The park was one recipient of a $211,000 federal Land and Water Conservation grant in 1979. The grant was designated “D” for development, not “R” for renovation. One stipulation of accepting the money included maintaining the site as open space in perpetuity.
“Rick Sullivan is the former mayor and secretary of the EOEA (state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He’s on the (school building) advisory committee. If anybody should have known about Article 97 and EJP, it should have been him,” Smith said. Yet, the issue of Article 97 didn’t arise until neighbors raised it, Smith said. EJP stands for Environmental Justice Population.
Sullivan said the former schools superintendent asked him to serve on the building committee because, as mayor, he had been involved in building the middle school, but he has attended only one committee meeting because of his busy schedule. “I wasn’t involved in picking this location,” he said. “I don’t know where all the Article 97 land is in the city.”
Westfield Mayor Daniel Knapik is confident the city will prevail in court. Knapik said the federal funds likely were used for the park pavilion, which is not being affected by construction of the new school. Also, the city will “swap” affected areas by protecting another site, a move that has precedent. The Paper Mill School was built on park land in 1990, and it wasn’t until a decade later that the city acquired open land in replacement, Knapik said.
Article 97 does allow municipalities to set aside alternate land in return for the use of protected land. However, the swapped site must be “land of equal utility,” said Krista Selmi, assistant secretary for communications in the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Since the Ashley and Cross streets open space is for active recreation, the land must be the same, although it does not need to be in an EJP zone.
Originally, city officials’ proposal to buy and preserve 62 acres off Northwest Road, which is wooded and contains wetlands, is off the table, but the city has yet to reveal what properties are being considered.
Although city officials are saying that they are continuing to move at full speed to build the school, the protected status could pose a significant delay. Selmi said the city would need to get the approval of both the National Park Service and the state Legislature to amend Article 97’s limitations on the site. They can’t proceed until this is cleared up, she said.
Stephanie Cooper, assistant secretary for the state Land and Forest Conservation, said the city has yet to apply for permission from the National Park Service, the first step in the process. “We understand that about one third of the (protected land) will be converted as part of the new school project,” she said. “Therefore, they have to go through the conversion.”
Her office will handle the application and submit it to the federal agency. The National Park Service must approve the proposed land substitution before the city can ask the state Legislature to allow the “swap,” which requires a 2/3 majority.
Since the Legislative session is winding down, the city likely will have to wait until January to file the bill. Cooper also said that the project couldn’t proceed before those issues are settled.
Richard Sullivan said he will not be involved in the Article 97 process and said he is confident that the EOEEA staff and state legislature will be diligent in ensuring everything is proper.
The size of the school affects more than just open space. Opponents say trying to fit a 600-student school on a site of a 300-student school is like trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag. “Even the architect, Margo Jones, said she thought the building was a tight fit,” Smith said. “This isn’t even a neighborhood school . . . . They’ll be busing children from all over the place.”
Mayor Knapik said early discussions did include a smaller school, but it isn’t feasible. The city must vacate Juniper Park; Abner Gibbs no longer meets the educational needs of today’s students; and Franklin Street is in disrepair, he said.
In addition, the state’s encouragement of school consolidation works for the city financially. “The state told us that if we would not see funding for another decade” if the city sought to build one elementary school now and another later, Knapik said.
Those who oppose the project mistrust whether officials followed correct procedures, ordinances, and laws during the process. As an example, Smith cited the School Building Committee’s decision to ask all of its members who were not on the Selection Committee to leave a meeting on Feb. 8 when the subcommittee interviewed three candidates for the Owners Project Manager. The minutes for the Feb. 8 meeting do not indicate voting to enter executive session, and no minutes of that executive session have been published. The Open Meeting Law provides that minutes be made public once the reason for the executive session — in this case, the hiring of a project manager — are no longer in play.
The full School Building Committee voted on Feb. 15 to accept the selection committee’s recommendation to hire Skanski USA of Boston as the project manager in a meeting that lasted 13 minutes. No discussion was recorded.
Mayor Knapik disputes the allegations of secrecy and breaking with normal procedures and laws. “We have followed every open meeting law,” he said, calling the charges “insulting.” The city attorney has attended all meetings just to make sure laws and ordinances are followed, Knapik said.
“Frankly, the other side is guilty of painting extravagantly with the truth themselves,” he said.
Project opponents also take issue with calculations the city uses to determine the percentage of the site covered by building and paved surfaces. The city’s zoning laws require the structure to cover no more than 25 percent of a lot in a Residence B zone. The city’s drawings show the entire area, which appears to be made up of six lots, comprises 7.07 acres. The building itself has a footprint of 1.25 acres. This puts the project well within the zoning requirement. However, the calculations appear to include the rights of way along Ashley and Cross streets, which range from eight to 12 feet from the roadway. Rights-of-way are not counted when determining lot dimensions, Westfield Principal Planner Jay Vinsky said.
Smith said the city is also erring in considering the school courtyards as part of the open space. “They’re just grasping at straws to make this project shine,” Smith said. “That’s how they treat the poorest neighborhood in the city.”
But open space is any area not covered by an impervious surface, Vinsky said. The courtyards would be considered open space, as would wooded areas on the site. It is unclear whether the courtyards would count as open space if they are closed to the public.
Many projects create neighborhood anxiety, but the mayor said the reaction to this project has been more than expected. “I knew it was going to be difficult with some folks. But I’m surprised at the level of story aggrandizing and the big misinformation campaign,” Knapik said.
City Councilor Mary O’Connell voted to support the project but has come to have reservations. “In a nutshell, I feel that people were not included in the initial process,” she said. “There seemed to be a case of ‘the less information initially, the better.’ I’m talking about the City Council, too. We were not told the full story from the get-go.”
O’Connell said she understands why residents may be suspicious when everything seems  rushed. City officials were told they needed to vote on details immediately; there were last-minute presentations; votes were taken with little discussion, O’Connell said.
“We had to fight tooth and nail” to get Ward 2 City Councilor James Brown as a voting member of the School Building Committee, O’Connell said. “Of the nine voting members, six are non-residents, she added. Brown has consistently been a supporter of the project and has taken O’Connell to task in this paper.
While opposition has centered on the neighborhood itself, O’Connell said she has begun to hear from people in her district, Ward 4, who are worried about their children being bused across town.
Kevin Sullivan, vice chairman of both the School Committee and School Building Committee, disagrees with O’Connell’s assessment of involving the public. “Some of the neighbors have been pretty much in on the process from day one,” he said. More neighbors began to show interest as the project progressed, he said.
Kevin Sullivan said the School Building Committee has responded to legitimate concerns, such as the school’s impact on traffic. The plan now includes widening Ashley Street to create a longer drop-off area for parents in order to get them out of the flow of traffic. “Every school has its own challenges,” Sullivan said. Staff at other schools work hard to ensure that pick-up and drop-off times cause as few problems as possible, and Sullivan said he expects the new school staff to do the same.
At least one of the claims against the suitability of the site has been quashed. Opponents said the acreage included wetlands and contains an underground stream. However, Conservation Coordinator Karen E. Leigh, after a site visit determined no indication of wetlands. “It may have been at one point, but it is not now” a wetland, she said. Leigh also said the state Wetlands Protection Act gives officials no jurisdiction over possible underground streams.

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