By Adam Swift
The City Council held a spirited, nearly four hour meeting on Monday night, with the major topic of discussion, to no one’s surprise, being the future of the Revere High School building project.
Much of the debate on Monday night centered on the possibility of building a new high school on the existing school site versus the possibility of reconsidering the Wonderland site.
Last week, the council voted 6-4-1 not to move ahead with submitting schematic design plans to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for a proposed $470 million new school on the 33-acre Wonderland property. The escalating cost of the project after the council voted on a $29.5 million bond to take the Wonderland site by eminent domain was a major concern for several of the councilors who voted against moving forward with the project.
The discussion on the high school project eventually got off the ground early in the evening with an update from Brian Dakin, the project manager from LeftField, about recent meetings in the wake of last week’s vote.
“What we heard on the project team last week resoundingly is that Wonderland is off the table,” said Dakin. “Since then, the project team has been working on both schedules and proposals to put something in front of the building committee, the School Committee, and this council in the coming weeks to chart a path toward a project at the existing site.”
Last Wednesday, the school building committee unanimously approved a motion to reconsider going back to the existing site. The School Committee will also have to weigh in on that vote, Dakin said.
Last Thursday, the MSBA also approved a previously requested extension to extend the schematic submission to sometime likely in June. However, Dakin said the MSBA will want an update on the project from the city and whether it is likely to move forward.
“The sooner, the better,” he added. “That ultimately will have to be captured in a letter to the school building authority, and that letter will have to make its way to the April board meeting, at which time, they will render their opinion.”
Dakin said the city would need approval from the MSBA to go back to the schematic design process and the preferred schematic report portion of the process where the site was selected.
“We’d more or less have to go back one-and-a-half steps,” said Dakin.
The first step, repeating the preferred schematic report (PSR), would take three or four months, and would also mean revisiting the three building options for a new high school at the existing site that were in the original PSR. That includes the baseline of bringing the existing building up to code, an addition/renovation option that included keeping the existing field house, as well as the option for an all-new building on Erricola Park.
On this timeline, a preferred option would be selected around June or July, with updated costs and schedules for each option.
Once that portion of the process was completed, the actual schematic design would run through mid to late winter of 2024, according to Dakin.
“That would be the equivalent of the vote that was last Monday night,” he said.
Going by that schedule, Dakin said a new high school would likely be ready to open in the summer of 2028.
“We, the project team, have always estimated that the current site is a more expensive construction than Wonderland,” said Dakin.
Dakin said he was not looking backwards to Wonderland, since it is off the table, but he added that there are a number of “nuts and bolts things” at the current high school site that fundamentally aren’t included at the Wonderland site. Those issues include site utilities, culvert issues, temporary parking, and more intense phasing.
“I think it is achievable, I think it can be done, and the job you hired us for was to figure out how to get a school built, and that is what we are trying to do,” said Dakin.
A number of supporters of the high school project, many of them students and school personnel, were in attendance in the council chambers holding signs in support of a new high school.
“As a result of having parents who worked around the clock … I was very reliant on the school system as a child,” said assistant Superintendent of Schools Richard Gallucci, who grew up in Revere and attended city schools.
Gallucci said he remembered attending Revere High in the 1990s with current councillors Steven Morabito and Marc Silvestri and having conversations at that time about how dated the school was.
“I can tell you with certainty, the number one thing that kids always wanted, at least when we were in high school, was some sort of campus feel, to be able to go out for lunch, to socialize, and then to go back for our afternoon classes,” said Gallucci. “I know that that might seem small, but it is huge to children, it is huge to the culture of a school, the culture of a city. We have talked a lot about guarantees and finances, I would never stand before you and be so bold to tell you how to spend public money.”
While Gallucci said he couldn’t give guarantees, he said he could make some assurances as a part of the school department and the building committee.
“What I can assure you is that a high school on Erricola Park will not be as nice or as effective for the families and the city itself,” he said. “Much of the design that we have worked on for the past two-plus, almost three years was specifically designed with purpose, it was designed for our most vulnerable populations, it was designed for teacher collaboration, it was designed in terms of where classes would take place, what the grade levels would be, and what that feel of an effective high school would be all about.”
Matthew Terrell, a junior at Revere High, noted that during the school building process, there has been a lack of communication between the city and the students.
“I’m never going to see this school, and I’m hoping that my younger brother in seventh grade might,” said Terrell. “I just hope that whether we go forward with Wonderland or we go with the existing site that the next round of questions will be directed toward not only among all of you, but also to the students, the teachers, and the parents.”
The relevant motion on the table at Monday night’s meeting was introduced by Councillor-at-Large Gerry Visconti. Visconti requested that the City Council send a letter to the Revere High School Building Committee requesting that the existing site of the high school be chosen as the feasibility study preferred option for submission to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and for further study during schematic design.
The long meeting ultimately ended with Council President Patrick Keefe moving the motion to a ways and means subcommittee meeting next week where there will be further discussion about the financial impact of the motion and building on the current high school site.
Ward 3 Councillor Cogliandro noted that the council vote last week was not against a new high school, but against moving forward with the schematic design plan for the MSBA at the Wonderland site.
“I think I can speak for everybody of anybody that voted no,” he said. “There has been so much misinformation, voting no last week was not to kill this project, it was not to say that we don’t care about education, that is ridiculous, that we don’t care about children, even more ridiculous.”
Cogliandro said he doesn’t care where the high school is built, but was troubled by not having financial numbers in place in time to make an informed decision.
“I’m not against Wonderland, I’m not against Revere High School,” he said. “It was stated we could do better, someone said ‘Do your job.’ I promise you, that was the most difficult decision I will ever make as a city councilor, I am doing my job.”
Cogliandro said the decisions being made by the council are about financial responsibility to the city.
“We are in charge of that, and I am sorry that we didn’t agree last week, but we can all work together and make this better for everybody,” Cogliandro said. “Please stop saying the city council does not want to build a high school, that is not true. It has to make sense financially, I can’t put homeowners and business owners and people who pay taxes here, I can’t put them at stake unless we know exactly what we are getting into.”
Later in the meeting, Richard Viscay, the city’s finance director, said it would likely cost the city another $2 million to go forward with another schematic design and planning process for the current high school site.
“We would either have to get a bond authorization or use existing funds to continue the process,” said Viscay.
Ward 2 Councillor Ira Novoselsky said he wanted to see the new high school at Wonderland, but made a decision to vote present at last week’s meeting because he didn’t believe there was a compromise from the school side on cutting some costs. He said down the road, the city is going to be looking for land to build a middle school, and the current high school site could have been used for that purpose.
Novoselsky noted that the council would not be able to take another vote on the Wonderland site for at least three months due to council rules.
“If the proposal was changed in some way, shape, or manner I believe we could make it sooner,” said Novoselsky. “There has to be a change, it can’t be the exact proposal that comes up.”
The Ward 2 Councillor said he would vote for a new proposal at the Wonderland site if there was more compromise with the council for a more economically feasible plan.
“I hope that we can reconsider it, that the school building committee will come up with a lesser proposal that will force a vote sooner than the three months,” said Novoselsky.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dianne Kelly said the school department would be very pleased to have a new school building with one athletic field rather than the two that were initially proposed at the Wonderland site.
Councillor-at-Large Dan Rizzo said the council was making financial decisions about the new school.
“That’s what we get elected to do,” said Rizzo. “One of the biggest duties for a city councillor, whether I am here or not is going to be fiscal oversight. If we don’t provide fiscal oversight – we understand that we need great education, we understand that we want kids to have a great school building – but we have to do it responsibly.
“We’ve had three different financial plans in about a month and a half presented to us,” Rizzo continued. “It’s been a moving target since this whole thing started, and I think somebody … mentioned that the price jumped $120 million since purchasing the land at Wonderland, you can’t just drop something like that into the lap of people who are making financial decisions – not just for parents who have children in the school system, but there are other people out there who are paying these bills, and we have to be responsible to them as well.”
Councilor-at-Large Marc Silvestri countered that there had been financial concessions made during the discussion over the building of a new high school. He stated the project team made cuts to the budget after estimates hit a peak of nearly $500 million, and that Viscay and the city administration came up with a plan to pay for the project without a debt exclusion or Proposition 21/2 override vote.
Silvestri also asked Dakin if building on the existing site would cost more than the estimate for the Wonderland project.
“It will cost more,” Dakin said.
Silvestri said he didn’t believe the votes against the Wonderland schematic design were political or personal, but he did say he believed the council was being shortsighted.
But Visconti said the council also has to take into account the costs of taking the Wonderland site by eminent domain and legal action that could drive that cost up.
“What we are doing is we are kicking that lawsuit down the line and not thinking of that lawsuit today,” said Visconti. “What’s happening is people are saying they have supported the Wonderland site and that’s changed, and yes, that is the case. But when the Wonderland was supported … the numbers that were given to us were wrong.”
Visconti also reiterated that none of the councillors said they did not want a high school.
“The misinformation that has gone out in the last week, and the attacks on the city council because they made a fiscally responsible decision and it disagrees with (Kelly) and maybe the administration, and we get attacked for trying to be fiscally responsible,” said Visconti. “It’s not political, the people who made it political is when all the misinformation started coming out.”
He said there was misinformation that homes near the existing high school would have to be taken by eminent domain if the city decided to go back to that site.
“You and I, the mayor, and everybody on that (building) committee knows that that’s not the case, so why say it?” asked Visconti. “Why stir up the pot?”
A little over two hours into the meeting, Mayor Brian Arrigo stepped up to the podium to address the council.
“We’ve been up before this council pretty much weekly for the last two months and I came up, if you all remember, very open to collaboration and working with this council in figuring out how to make things work,” said the mayor. “Many of the people that you heard from tonight trust all of us to do all of that without them coming up here to express what they very clearly expressed tonight. We’ve been working very collaboratively, again, maybe last week wasn’t collaborative, but that was maybe a failure on all of our parts.
“In terms of the existing site … I think it is very clear tonight, it is the more expensive site,” Arrigo continued. “Does it have less risk? Possibly, but the risks that we take at the existing site is one that I don’t think many people want to deal with, and those are the residents on East Mountain Ave. who could potentially have their houses taken.”
The potential for taking land by eminent domain revolves around the replacement of Erricola Park after the construction of a potential new high school on the site. Arrigo said there is a real chance the state would require the city to use more land to rebuild the park next to the new high school.
“It is a very real risk that wouldn’t be able to build a school on the existing site without taking property,” Arrigo said. “That is a real risk, just like Wonderland is a real risk with additional payments. We mitigated those risks at Wonderland, we told you that in our financial plan, which was yeoman’s work by our CFO, because anybody could tell you that planning for one year is a challenge.
“To be asked to plan out for 25 years, there are a lot of questions about that, and there are going to be a lot of assumptions, and there are a lot of risks involved,” the mayor continued. “We are elected to make those decisions and weigh the risks. The final thing I’ll say, is if this is truly a financial decision, it’s been very clearly stated that the existing site is a more expensive site.”
Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto once again reiterated his belief that the private development of the Wonderland would add considerable money to the city’s tax rolls and go toward paying the debt service for a new school at the existing high school property.