Community Leader Donald Castle Endorses New School Building Plan

By Thomas Grillo 

The man behind the defeat of a $188 million proposal for a pair of middle schools has endorsed the latest plan to replace the crumbling Pickering Middle School.

Donald Castle, president of Protect Our Reservoir | Preserve Pine Grove, a grassroots organization fought the Proposition 2 ½ override to pay for two schools in 2017, said Mayor Thomas M. McGee’s decision to build one school on Conomo Avenue, adjacent to the 104-year-old Pickering, has his support. 

“I appreciate the mayor looking at different sites to build a new school,” he said. “The Pickering location is the right place for it. I enthusiastically support it.”

Castle led the opposition to a plan supported by then Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy, former Superintendent Catherine Latham, the School Committee, Lynn Teachers Association, and the City Council for a 652-student school to be built near the Pine Grove Cemetery and Breeds Pond Reservoir on Parkland Avenue. A second one to serve 1,008 students would have been constructed in West Lynn on McManus Field.

Latham said the new schools were needed to fix the lack of space and inadequate facilities. At the time, she said the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the state agency founded to fund school construction, insisted on two schools to meet the districts’ growing school population.

But Castle argued both sites were unacceptable because the Parkland Avenue parcel was intended for the expansion of Pine Grove Cemetery, and the Commercial Street location would exacerbate traffic problems in that section of the city. Castle also insisted the site selection process failed to be inclusive, and the school building project was too expensive.

While the administration said the average tax bill would increase by $196 annually until 2042, many homeowners whose homes are assessed at a higher value, would be hit with increases of as much as $500 each year.

Voters crushed the proposal at the polls by an overwhelming majority.

Michael Bertino, the city’s chief financial officer, did not return calls and texts seeking comment. He told The Daily Item, which first reported the story, the city would set aside $500,000 annually from the city’s budget to pay the city’s portion.

“If the people don’t have the appetite to pay more, we have to do it within the confines of Prop 2½, which is our budget,” Bertino told the paper. 

Still, there will be costs to be paid by taxpayers. If Lynn pays the project cost from its budget, the cash-strapped city will continue to be unable to bring the Police, Fire and the Inspectional Services departments up to full employment levels. 

Under MSBA rules, communities may be reimbursed up to 80 percent of the cost of a new school. But it could be closer to 65 percent. If the new school costs $100 million, at 80 percent, that’s a $20 million taxpayer bill. If it’s 65 percent, the cost to taxpayers is $35 million.

But City Council President Darren Cyr said he hopes the explosion of commercial development over the next two years will bring in millions of dollars in taxes to help support city schools and services. 

School Committee member John Ford said it’s unclear whether the school would just include grades six, seven, and eight.

“We are looking for perhaps a K-8 school that would solve multiple problems,” he said. “That could be the wave of the future for Lynn’s schools. We have a dozen schools that are more than a 100 years old and three schools in urgent need of repair. To build that many schools would be an awfully big outlay of capital annually.”

Cyr agrees. He said the idea is to put as many as four elementary schools and the middle school in separate wings, and that makes sense to him. 

“If we could combine four schools into one building with state-of the-art services and eliminate three or four other buildings, that would save money,” he said.

It’s unclear how many students it would hold. But Cyr said it could serve as many as 2,000 children.

Unlike the previous plan to build the two schools, which Ford said lacked transparency, this time it will be different. 

“There will be lots of public hearings, people will be well informed,” he added.

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