By Josh Resnek
For many sensible thinking residents of the neighborhood, and for many city councilors and school committee members, the former Pope John facility is a perfect fit as a partial solution to the overcrowding issue plaguing the public schools.
However, the mayor and some of his staunch supporters are willing to suggest anything but Pope John as a solution when it is arguably, the least expensive and quickest fix to mitigate overcrowding.
Councilors Stephanie Smith and Mike Marchese have expressed frustration and amazement that putting the Pope John facility back to use as a public school is even an issue.
Superintendent of Schools Priya Tahiliani has also firmly supported Pope John’s reuse as an imperative.
Others, however, are not so sure. They have many questions, too many questions, frankly, to make any sense, according to elected public officials like Smith and Marchese.
The dissonant voices seemingly opposed to Pope John as the most inexpensive and timely solution to the problem have been suggesting trailers and the former high school on Broadway.
The trailers would be located in open areas in front of or next to all the public elementary schools as a quick fix at a cost of about $25 million or more.
Councilors Smith, Marchese and Darren Costa are opposed to trailers.
The mayor feels there is nothing wrong with trailers. In fact, School Committeewoman Millie Cardello, a strong supporter of the mayor, said recently that trailers (prefabricated classrooms) should be considered because she’s lived in one for many years.
About four years ago, a study by engineers and construction experts suggested to the mayor and the city government that rehabbing the high school would take about $145 million.
Engineers and construction experts all agree – the job that would have cost $145 million about four years ago would today cost somewhere in the range of $225 to $250 million dollars – an astounding amount of money that would not solve the city’s longer term public education student space problems.
Construction would take quite some time, almost three years.
So for better or worse, the old high school is not an option but no one with the mayor dares make such a statement.
The alternative would be to choose the Pope John facility.
Superintendent Tahiliani last week estimated it would cost maybe $25 million to get Pope John ready and that the time it would take would likely be a great deal less than two years. In fact, there is the belief that Pope John could be readied in a year.
However, as the effort to oust Tahiliani takes on added importance to the mayor and his supporters with the passing of time, there is a constitutional inability on the part of those people to consider Pope John as a fix for at least 1,000 out of almost 1,500 students presently stuffed into classrooms and former libraries because there is no space for them elsewhere.
It has taken the mayor about a month to have his engineers and contractors estimate how much it will cost and how long it will take to rehab Pope John – which is not in need of a top to bottom rehab as the roof is fine, and the heating system is fine, and the basic structural integrity of the building is evident to all those walking through it.
The mayor’s figures are set to be in his hands sometime this week. At last week’s joint convention of the city council and the school committee, the mayor tried to assuage those members bothered by his time consuming desire for an endless round of meetings to discuss the overcrowding problem instead of doing something immediately about it.
That’s when trailers re-entered the mind set of those who want to get rid of Tahiliani and please the mayor at the same time by using Pope John – not for public school students – but rather, for affordable housing.
Said Marchese: “If it was 1,500 white kids who needed more space, there wouldn’t be an ounce of debate. When it’s about Blacks, Browns and Hispanic and just a few white kids, the mayor and his allies feel no compulsion to move fast. That’s a crime if you ask me,” he said.
Now enter Rafael Mares and his group, The Neighborhood Housing Developers (TNHD).
His firm, he announced, has pulled out of the project.
He said the community was not in favor of it, and therefor, he wasn’t in favor of it.
“Pope John should be used as a school to reduce overcrowding,” Mares said.
How did the mayor respond?
“They haven’t pulled out of the project,” he said.