Council Strikes Down High School Plan at Wonderland

By Adam Swift

The City Council struck a major blow to plans for a new Revere High School on Monday night.

The council voted 6-4-1 against approving the Revere High School project’s schematic design submission to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). The submission included the presented scope, schedule, and budget in order to keep the project in line for MSBA grant funding.

School Committee members stated that passing on the opportunity for funding at this point could mean an end to funding opportunities for a new high school from the MSBA.

The proposed submission to the MSBA came with a $470 million budget for building a new high school at the Wonderland site. The city’s portion of the cost was estimated at just under $290 million, with an MSBA grant covering the remaining cost of the project.

Councillors Anthony Cogliandro, Joanne McKenna, Dan Rizzo, Richard Serino, Gerry Visconti, and Anthony Zambuto voted against moving forward with the project. Councillors Steben Morabito, John Powers, Marc Silvestri, and Patrick Keefe voted in favor of moving forward with the project and the MSBA submission. Ward 2 Councillor Ira Novoselsky voted present.

For those councillors who opposed moving forward with the high school project, it was a combination of a ballooning budget and uncertainty about how the city will afford the project, as well as questions about the Wonderland site, that sealed the deal.

Ward 1 Councillor Joanne McKenna, as a former teacher and as an elected official, spoke of her difficulty in making the vote at the ways and means subcommittee meeting prior to the vote of the full council on Monday night.

“Wearing these two hats has made it very difficult for me at times to make the decision that I believe would be the right one,” said McKenna. “This decision that I make tonight is probably one of the most difficult decisions I have made on this council. I have given it much thought, spoken to many people, and have agonized over this at times.”

McKenna said she did not make her decision lightly.

“I believe, moving forward, there are too many unanswered questions,” said McKenna. “I feel the hat I wear tonight is for the people of Revere, my constituents, and I would not want to burden them with the cost of this whole project. My passion for teaching, my students, and my colleagues I don’t hold lightly, but with inflation, a so-called recession may be coming, the uncertainty of the legal cost caused by eminent domain, the interest rates increasing … I believe that Revere cannot afford putting this high school at the Wonderland site.”

With the four councillors who voted in favor of moving the high school building project sitting on the ways and means subcommittee, the motion had a favorable 4-2 recommendation coming out of committee to the full council.

During the subcommittee meeting, Morabito voiced some of his thoughts on the nearly three-year process so far to get a new high school built, and the potential funding of the project. Morabito noted that there was a long selection process to choose the Wonderland site, as well as numerous School Building Commission meetings over the past two years.

“In those meetings, people were invited to discuss various locations, and they narrowed it down to three locations,” said Morabito. “It was the Coolidge Street where public housing is, the existing high school site, and Wonderland. The school building board voted for Wonderland, the School Committee voted for Wonderland, and this honorable body voted for Wonderland.

“So the location is out of question.”

Morabito said some of the other topics discussed in the council’s ways and means committee meetings over the past several months included the many benefits of building a new high school, including the technology and science advantages and the labs that will be built. Smaller classrooms and accreditation for the high school would also be a benefit of the new building.

“The benefits outweigh so many other things that we have voted on in the past,” said Morabito. “It’s the benefits that the children of Revere are going to see through providing them this school.”

Early in Monday’s subcommittee meeting, several residents and School Committee members spoke in favor of building the new high school at Wonderland.

“We all agree we need a new high school,” said School Committee member Susan Gravellese. “We are all homeowners and taxpayers and have the same concerns about potential tax increases. Mayor Arrigo and (city finance chief Richard) Viscay have informed us that there will not be a debt exclusion or a Proposition 21/2 override.”

Gravellese said there has been discussion about switching gears and using the existing site as the new location of the high school.

“Not only will this be a greater expense, it will also require eminent domain of single family homes along East Mountain Ave., displacing families who have called Revere their home for years,” said Gravellese.

Later in the meeting, high school project manager Brian Dakin said potential eminent domain takings at the current high school site would depend upon a state ruling about replacing Erricola Park, where the city would have to build on the current school site.

“Without an accredited high school, our property values will plummet and our families will leave,” said Gravellese. “This project has been several years in the making. The process of applying for funding from the MSBA started in 2016 with approval in 2019.”

Gravellese said the school building committee started meeting in January of 2020 with uninterrupted progress, holding biweekly meetings in multiple public forums in a transparent process.

“If we pass on this opportunity for funding from the MSBA, we may never get invited back into the core program, which will eliminate our chances for a new Revere High School, resulting in losing our accreditation,” said Gravellese. “If we lose our accreditation, we will also lose out on state and federal funding, our students will be denied admissions to colleges and universities, and the result of this will be our students having limited opportunities for success in the future.”

Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto was one of the original opponents of building on the Wonderland site, noting that the city would lose hundreds of millions of potential property tax income over the next half century through potential private development of the 33-acre site.

Monday night, Zambuto reiterated that he was also skeptical that the city could make the debt payments for the high school project loan over the next several years with the plan laid out by the city administration.

Visconti, who chairs the ways and means subcommittee and sits on the school building committee, closed out the ways and means meeting elaborating why he could no longer support the project as presented. Last year, Visconti was among the councilors who voted in favor of a $29.5 million bond to take the Wonderland site by eminent domain.

“Being on the building committee for the last three years, it’s given me a time to reflect on the process, and there have been a lot of meetings, a lot of hours put in by a lot of people in this room, and a lot of people outside this building,” said Visconti. “That’s what’s tough, because we’ve gotten to this point, and now that we are at a point where we have to make some decisions. My frustration, and my hesitation comes with making decisions that these past few months came with numbers that were not really correct.”

Visconti said the council and building committee were given numbers throughout the process, and noted that he was also on the committee that selected Consigli as the construction manager for the project to help look at the numbers.

“They saw the budget, and then we go in, and the budget continues to move, but it continues to move drastically after we made a decision on eminent domain,” said Visconti. “That’s a problem I have, and it is something that I have a difficult time getting over.”

Visconti said if the council was provided the current budget numbers prior to the eminent domain vote, the Wonderland site would not have been the site chosen for the project.

“I know that, because I was the deciding vote,” said Visconti. “I voted for Wonderland based on numbers that were incorrect and I can’t get over that, unfortunately.”

Based on the construction costs, Visconti said the Wonderland site would assist in paying for a new high school if and when it is developed.

“Not to get into the eminent domain price, but I act on the side of caution all the time,” said Visconti. “This is not my money, but I am acting like it is, because if it was my money, I couldn’t take that chance, and that’s how I feel.”

Being fiscally responsible, Visconti said he could not vote to move forward with the schematic design at the Wonderland site.

“I just feel that the risks at the Wonderland site outweigh the positives, and that’s just my opinion,” said Visconti.

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