By Josh Resnek
The administration’s plan to give away an existing public school to developers and to rip down the former Pope John site and to use it as affordable housing at a time when the public schools are overcrowded by more than 1,000 students has been put on hold by the city council.
The city council Monday night showed its growing apprehension about turning Pope John into yet another apartment complex when the public schools are straining at the seams with nowhere to put students who need classrooms and desks.
The council appeared unified and adamant that the school crowding crisis far exceeds the affordable housing crisis in magnitude and importance at this moment in time.
All this, despite a warning from the mayor’s mouthpiece, Chief of Staff Erin Deveney, that the taxpayers would be made to pay the cost of repairs to the former Pope John site if it is used as a school.
Deveney offered no short term solution to relieve the overcrowding issue, rather, just her admonition that taxpayers would pay for the upgrades to make more space available.
Thirteen out of 14 public speakers pleaded for overcrowding relief for the public school students before the meeting began.
“I implore you not to take the desperate plea to give Pope John away. It is another self-inflicted crisis created by the mayor. Move forward with Pope John for a solution to increase capacity. Save the children. Open up Pope John,” John Puopolo told the council.
He received a rousing ovation from the gallery inside the council chamber.
By a 7-2 vote, with only Council President John Hanlon and Stephanie Martin inexplicably voting against the motion, the city council gave the administration two weeks to come back to the table with numbers and real time ideas about what exactly to do about the overcrowding situation.
Even Councilor Al Lattanzi, the mayor’s affable rubber stamp, voted for the measure.
Councilor Stephanie Smith and her colleagues also asked that the council be allowed to take a tour of the Pope John complex, with the architect now allegedly crunching numbers, and to be told right there and then what the effort to bring the former school into working order would cost.
“Pope John solves many problems,” Smith said.
Superintendent of Schools Priya Tahiliani agreed.
“There is no grand solution to solve our problems. Pope John needs to be considered one step of what is a larger problem to be solved. This needs to be an ongoing discussion,” she told the council.
Councilor Mike Marchese said he deplored the lack of action being taken by the administration to relieve the overcrowding.
“What is wrong with these people?” he asked following a passionate soliloquy decrying the pro-development administration.
He received a roaring ovation from the crowd.
In addition, the council voted unanimously against appropriating $2 million the administration was seeking for modular classrooms that would be erected on the front grassy area of the Keverian School.
In all, this was a startling reversal of the city council’s subservience to the mayor’s wishes, and a reminder that the council can wield a big stick when it comes to relieving the overcrowding plaguing the public schools.
The mayor did not appear.
Monday night’s meeting was preceded by last week’s stunning School Committee meeting.
At that meeting the School Committee voted 5-4 to send a non-binding measure to the city council requesting that Pope John be used to alleviate overcrowding.
The mayor and Mike McLaughlin, Joe LaMonica and Millie Cardello opposed sending the letter to the city council, choosing to remain loyal to the mayor as opposed to bargaining for more space for the school kids.
So the battle continues with lines being drawn in the sand.
With Tahiliani, the council, and the architect ordered to provide minimum cost assessments, the Pope John walk through in or within two weeks should be telling.