WESTFIELD – The Westfield School Committee held steady in a year full of drama with the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to hear the appeal of the Ashley St. school building project and Cross St. playground, and the concurrent decision to redistrict the schools and bring elementary students back from Russell.
In December 2016 the city’s Law Department received notice that the state Supreme Judicial Court would hear the appeal on the lifting of an injunction to build the Ashley Street Elementary School, filed by residents opposed to the use of a piece of the Cross St. playground for the project. The 600 student elementary school project at the site of the former Ashley Street School had planned to use 1.37 acres of the Cross St. playground, which plaintiffs had argued was protected park land under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution. The project had been approved for funding by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) more than six years earlier.
The Appeals Court had found in favor of the City of Westfield in August of 2016, confirming a Superior Court decision that the site for the school was not subject to the provisions of Article 97, which requires a 2/3 vote of the state legislature to release certain parklands from protected status.
In January, the city also learned that the Office of the Attorney General wrote a letter asking the Supreme Judicial Court to hear the appeal of Smith et al. versus The City of Westfield citing “a substantial public interest in reversing the Appeals Court’s decision and clarifying an ambiguity in the Court’s decision about what public lands are protected by Article 97.
April 2017 the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts heard oral arguments for and against the proposed usage of the Cross Street site for a new elementary school for the City of Westfield. City solicitor Susan Phillips and Mayor Brian P. Sullivan attended the hearing for the City of Westfield. Plaintiffs Thomas Smith, his brothers, “families, friends, neighbors, and the many Cross St. playground state-wide supporters” also attended, wrote Smith in an email.
Phillips said the court was well-prepared for the hearing, having read all of the briefs. Each side got fifteen minutes to state their case. Phillips said the plaintiffs gave up seven minutes of their time to the Attorney General’s office.
Sullivan said they were given no indication of when there might be a decision made by the court in the case. “Now we sit and wait. Very much no indication,” Sullivan said.
In mid August City Solicitor Susan C. Phillips said that her office received notice that the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth would be “waiving their own 130 day rule” on the appeal of the Article 97 decision on the Cross St. playground/Ashley Street school building project.
“Pretty standard,” Phillips said, adding that it meant the court didn’t make a decision yet. “It would have been this week,” she added.
On September 5th Mayor Brian P. Sullivan, Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski and Business Manager Ronald Rix said they were going to undertake an in-depth study to determine whether the proposed 600 student elementary school at the Ashley Street site was still necessary, or whether a smaller 400-student school building would be sufficient.
“When you pull the fifth grade out, do you still need a 600 student school there,” asked Czaporowski. He said the district is initiating a study on long term enrollment. The last study, which predated the elementary school building project, was done ten years ago and had expired. ‘The question has to be asked,” he said.
Mayor Sullivan said the School Committee made some “pretty tough decisions” over the last year, specifically to pull the fifth grade out of the elementary schools, and to bring Russell School students back to Westfield.
The redistricting, which will go into effect in the school year beginning September 2018, will include six K-4 elementary schools, one 5-6 intermediate school, and one 7-8 middle school. Rix said there will be a cost savings in the new plan, as the district will go from seven elementary schools to six. Czaporowski said there will be educational benefits, also.
With the new plan, a new elementary school would also be K-4, and would further consolidate the district into five elementary schools by closing two of the schools, Franklin Avenue and Abner Gibbs. “Here’s where we are, because we made a move to pull the fifth grade out,” Sullivan said.
All three said that the Supreme Judicial Court’s anticipated ruling on the appeal of Article 97 protection of the Cross Street playground was not a factor in their decision to do the study. The case centers on whether the 1.37 acres of the playground which would be taken for the school is Article 97 protected land.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled on October 2nd that Cross Street playground is Article 97 protected, reversing the decision of the Supreme Court and Appellate Court, and ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Virginia Smith et al.
The decision summary, recorded by C.J. Gants, read as follows: Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, approved by the Legislature and ratified by the voters in 1972, provides that “[l]ands and easements taken or acquired” for conservation purposes “shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of” without the approval of a two-thirds roll call vote of each branch of the Legislature. The issue on appeal is whether a proposed change in use of municipal parkland may be governed by art. 97 where the land was not taken by eminent domain and where there is no restriction recorded in the registry of deeds that limits its use to conservation or recreational purposes.
We conclude that there are circumstances where municipal parkland may be protected by art. 97 without any such recorded restriction, provided the land has been dedicated as a public park. A city or town dedicates land as a public park where there is a clear and unequivocal intent to dedicate the land permanently as a public park and where the public accepts such use by actually using the land as a public park. Because the municipal land at issue in this case has been dedicated as a public park, we conclude it is protected by art. 97.
“The Massachusetts Supreme Court’s ruling amounts to a correction of the Superior Court and Appellate Court’s improper decisions. We appreciate all of the support from friends, family and strangers we’ve received over the past six years,” said Thomas Smith, speaking for the plaintiffs.
Mayor Brian P. Sullivan and Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said they would not be deterred in their focus on building a new elementary school. “It’s not going to change the vision I’ve had since the day I entered (this office), taking care of the students, and getting a building built for students in the downtown area,” Sullivan said.
Both Sullivan and Czaporowski said they were already in the process of looking to build a smaller 400-student elementary school, as opposed to the original plan for a 600-student elementary school. They also said they are still looking at the Ashley Street school site as a location for the new school.
“The Superintendent and the School Committee made tough decisions that opened up new options,” Sullivan said, speaking about the decision to move the fifth grades into the middle schools.
“400 students is fairly smaller than a 600-student school,” Czaporowski added.
Sullivan said that the Ashley Street school site “is still by far the correct location. It’s the neighborhood that needs it the most. The majority of students could walk to school,” he said, adding that he would still like to give that neighborhood a school for 2020.
At the Westfield School Committee meeting that evening, vice-chair Cindy Sullivan raised the decision by the Supreme Judicial Court. “Personally, I’m very disappointed by this. It’s been going on for years,” Sullivan said, acknowledging that the decision has now been made.
She said a month earlier, the district had already come up with a plan to build a 400-student school on the site, because of the decision to move the fifth grade into the middle schools. “We identified this as an issue, that we don’t need a 600-student school,” Sullivan said.
She said the School Committee has studied the issue, and wants to do whatever is best for the students. “I’m hoping the community will rally around a 400-student school,” she said. “It’s crucial that we move forward.” Sullivan also said she would be happy to speak with anyone about the issue, and encouraged the public to call her.
Mayor Brian P. Sullivan said that the city has always had the welfare of the students in mind. “The ultimate goal is to build a school in that location, and service those students that need it the most,” he said.
He said he would also be asking those residents to get involved, noting that the involvement of the community in the meetings on redistricting was “great.”
“The hope is that we won’t start at the bottom with the MSBA, but we’ll maintain the spot we’re in and move forward,” Cindy Sullivan added.
Recently, Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said that the district had spoken with the MSBA and expected to meet with them in the middle of January.
“They’re very interested that we pulled the fifth grade out of the elementary schools. They’re pleased that we’re maximizing our space,” Czaporowski said.
He also said he sent the new enrollment data to MSBA. ”They recognize we still need a new school. Pulling the 5th grade out changed our numbers. It makes sense that they’re looking at them,” he said.