Frustrations mount as conditions deteriorate at the McKinley School

The McKinley School is bursting at the seams this year, and this week parents and former parents have risen up in protest – saying the current facility is no place for their children to learn. However, until a new school to replace the McKinley is definitely in the pipeline, the parents do not want the school closed.

“Inequitable,” has become the mantra this time around.

The school is more than 100 years old and is the only remaining school not to be re-built as part of the city’s School Building Program. Already, the city has built two new schools in West Revere, a new middle school near the high school and the Paul Revere School is in its last stages of construction.

Now, McKinley parents want to know when they’re going to get their school and they’re not getting the answers that they want.

So far, the timeline for starting a new school looks to be at least 2012, but some contend it will be much longer – or worse yet – the kids will be scattered and the school will be shuttered and never re-built. Such a scenario would break up one of the tightest school communities in the city.

On Monday afternoon, parent Benae Bertocchi stood outside the entrance to the school and handed out fliers written in English and Spanish to those picking up their children. The fliers called on parents to attend Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting, “And ask the Revere School Committee not to close the McKinley School without plans to build a new McKinley!”

Bertocchi said parents should not tolerate the deplorable, crowded conditions at the McKinley when not more than two miles away, children in the same grades are enjoying amenities like a huge library and a full gymnasium equipped with a rock climbing wall.

“I moved to Revere about 11 years ago and I was pregnant,” said Bertocchi. “We moved to Allston Street and were excited to have this small school with a great community. Plus, they said they were going to rebuild the school soon. Well, now it’s time for us to get what’s ours before it’s too late. My daughter sits in a classroom in the basement next to the boiler and has to smell the sewer smell all day coming out of the bathrooms, which I might add are the only bathrooms in the whole school for students.”

The Conditions

The conditions at the McKinley School haven’t changed since the last time parents stood up and called for a new school, which was about two years ago when Mayor Tom Ambrosino and school officials began indicating that the new McKinley would take a little longer than anticipated.

That doesn’t mean that there’s anything good in that – especially since the enrollment at the school has increased dramatically this year, with nearly 500 children in the small school. Not to mention, the school houses some of the most diverse children in the city, many who come from families where English isn’t spoken.

What has transpired as a result of that the surge in student enrollment is that classrooms have been set up in the hallways. Odd shaped rooms that were meant for storage or heating equipment are now learning environments.

There is no gymnasium. There isn’t any cafeteria, and there is also no kitchen facility so the lunch menus are severely limited compared to other schools.

The library is a laughing matter, and the computer lab is pieced together with wires and extension cords.

Finally, worst of all, there is only one set of bathrooms for the whole school, and they are in the basement and frequently stink of sewer gas.

Those are just a few of the inadequacies.

The increased enrollment has only made things more desperate.

“The day my son had a parent/teacher open house, the principal practically begged us to move from the McKinley to the Lincoln and said she had never seen the school bursting at the seams like it is and she was afraid. She told parents she was afraid. That opened my eyes,” said Richard Cookson Jr. – a parent who is new to the McKinley this year.

Moving to Beachmont?

In the wake of a lot of strong language about the school this week, Mayor Ambrosino has proposed the idea of closing the McKinley this coming June and moving the students to the Beachmont School.

The Beachmont now houses the Paul Revere School students, who are awaiting the opening of their brand new school next September. That space in Beachmont will open up when they leave, and the McKinley students were scheduled to be there for two years during the construction of their new school.

Ambrosino said he didn’t see any big deal about moving the students one year earlier. “My guess is we’re looking at something in late 2011 or early 2012 to start construction,” he said. “You’re kind of at the mercy of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). One simple solution available is to move the children to Beachmont next year. If that timeframe I stated is correct, they have to be at Beachmont in 2011 and they’ll be there two years.

“One option is to move the children there one year earlier,” he continued. “I don’t see the big problem with considering a move one year earlier.”

The big problem for parents is that there are no plans drawn up for the school, and many feel that an early move would turn into a permanent move and the permanent closure of their school.

“They can find the money for the design plans now,” said Ward 4 Councillor George Rotondo, who has two daughters at the McKinley. “With all due respect, I am the only politician from this area who ever sent their children to McKinley. The Mayor didn’t. His daughter got a waiver to go to the Whelan. I care about the McKinley, and mark my words, the plan was made six months ago – to close the McKinley when the Paul Revere opens.”

Cookson said in numerous conversations with school officials and the mayor, he doesn’t feel a new school is in the works. Without a set of plans on the table, he said he wouldn’t support moving. “I know a lot of parents aren’t happy with it,” said Cookson. “If we have to shuttle our children across the city for two years while they’re building a brand new school, then fine. But don’t close the school and let it sit there 10 years and that’s what it sounds like when I read between the lines of what the mayor’s suggesting.”

Kim Swindle-Oliva is a former parent at the McKinley who is still outspoken on the issue. In fact, many former parents have continued to fight for the school long after their children have left.

That’s because the fight has been going on for more than 30 years with no success – seemingly the school always gets the shaft.

Betty Marotta of Warren Street has fought for the school for decades. Her children are now adults.

Janet Cimmino began fighting for the school when she was pregnant with her daughter. That daughter graduated from Revere High School a few years ago.

Swindle-Oliva’s kids have now left the McKinley, but she recalls serving diligently on the city’s School Building Committee and hearing all the promises about getting five new schools, including the McKinley. “Our school was the one they toured when they brought people from the state to demonstrate how bad things were and how badly we needed new schools,” she said. “We knew we were last on the list, but last doesn’t mean never. You can’t show off how bad the school is to [state officials] and then not replace it with the money they gave you.”

Two Different Views

This week, Superintendent Paul Dakin indicated that he has laid plans before the School Committee concerning what to do about the McKinley and many other overcrowding problems around the city.

He indicated that he doesn’t believe there is an appetite from the city for replacing the school. “We should be in the bid process for construction right now,” he said. “In June, we should be done with Paul Revere and just continue building like it happened when Rumney Marsh opened and we went right to Paul Revere … The message I’ve received so far is there is not an appetite to do the school right now or down the road … It’s not me and the School Committee. We would love to have a building. It’s in the mayor’s hands and the city’s hands.”

However, Mayor Ambrosino has a whole different message, and said that he is committed to the building – even though he believes it will be built under the watch of his successor.

“It’s always been our intention to move forward with that school,” said the mayor. “I don’t know why people think that we don’t want to move forward or that I don’t want to move forward. All I have said is that the school will probably be built under someone else’s tenure.”

The mayor indicated that the city could probably get 70 percent of the school design and construction paid for, but it would take time and a lot of waiting for the MSBA process to play out.

Getting it Built

Right now, MSBA is analyzing a large pool of school construction projects that were submitted on November 13. The McKinley is one of them.

According to an MSBA spokesperson, the authority would look at the projects on paper and determine which ones were emergency situations. Those projects would be invited by the state to participate in the next step – a feasibility study. Before that is conducted though, the MSBA requires a city or town to give a strong indication that they have the resources to pay for any new project.

Given that there are no plans drawn up as of yet for the McKinley, many question whether the city will give the go-ahead or not. Many wonder if the resources for the McKinley are targeted for something else or simply don’t exist.

“Maybe the MSBA will move quicker,” said the mayor. “I’m trying to be realistic. I am not going to lie to people. All through my career I have made a point of not lying to people and I’m not going to start now…The inherent reality is the MSBA is not likely to move quick on the McKinley as long as we’re being paid for the Paul Revere.”

The mayor said that he also had no regrets about the order in which the school buildings were constructed, as critics have complained about the decision to replace younger schools in more affluent areas before the older schools like McKinley.

“We would have never got 90 percent reimbursement unless we did the two middle schools first,” he said matter plainly. “The schedule we advocated was the best possible schedule to maximize state reimbursements. I have no second thoughts about that schedule.”

Dakin said that he hopes that the promises are kept. “We should keep the promise that was made or maybe we shouldn’t have gone down the path the way we did,” he said. “It’s easy at the end to say maybe we should have done something else, especially when people get cold feet. We’ve done 80 percent of this; the remaining 20 percent is left and we have a moral obligation to finish that last 20 percent. This isn’t a wish list. I think it just comes down to numbers in the end.”

And unfortunately, all too often when dealing with large populations of the most vulnerable children, there is always the fear that numbers can come before kids.

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