You have to assume Joe’s Tire was not directly adjacent to the Jireh Swift School when it opened in 1909.

The North End of New Bedford would have had to have been more rural at the time,  and it’s hard to imagine they built the school right next to a used tire lot.

But then again, in 1975, when they built the Hayden-McFadden School, the elevated Interstate 195 was already under construction. They built that school with its front door facing the raised highway anyway. To this day, that’s where the staff for the school parks, under the fume-laden, grimy girders that hoist up the road.

The staff parking lot across from the front entrance of the Hayden-McFadden Elementary School is located under the elevated Interstate 195. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

It’s safe to say that New Bedford school officials have not always been aware of best practices for planning for a healthy environment for the city’s students. But perhaps there was not as much awareness of those kinds of things in bygone eras.

Good planning and sensitivity to the needs of children, however, definitely seem to have come more to the forefront in the city’s latest capital planning process for its school buildings.

By cobbling together a once-in-a-lifetime combination of unusually large amounts of funding from federal, state and city coffers, Assistant Superintendent Andrew O’Leary says he hopes New Bedford can finally put a big dent in the backlog of school buildings with serious structural problems.

“In the next three or four years, I think we can get there,” he told the City Council’s Finance Committee on March 9.

The building standards in the city have to be raised, O’Leary told the council. 

“Our students shouldn’t have to compromise for where they are. Our teachers shouldn’t have to compromise for where they work,” he said.

The number of New Bedford school buildings that have problems is not small, O’Leary has explained to both the School Committee and council in recent weeks.

For starters, there are no fewer than seven elementary schools that are in the vicinity of 100 years old: The DeValles, Congdon, Swift, Ashley, Pacheco, Rodman and Winslow elementaries. Those buildings are not fully equipped to cook hot meals or provide contemporary gymnasiums, never mind easily adaptable for modern computer technology.

Then there’s the eight elementary school buildings that were built between the 1950s and 1970s: The Pulaski, Campbell, Hayden-McFadden, Parker, Carter-Brooks, Carney, Hathaway and Gomes schools. Those structures have struggled with, among other problems, dingy plastic windows that let in little light. Some of them also have failing roofs, and inadequate HVAC systems.


Then there’s the city’s mammoth comprehensive high school building in the West End. It constantly needs upgrades, including to a planetarium that hasn’t worked in at least 20 years and tennis courts that have fallen into disrepair. The city has already upgraded and revamped its pool. To top it all off, the city school system lacks an adequate centralized kitchen that can quickly transport hot foods to the older schools that lack the capacity for cooking.

O’Leary explained that capital planning is not something that America’s K-12 school systems have traditionally been equipped to do. So schools have tended to deteriorate as maintenance needs were postponed or not done at all. And 100-year-old buildings that are long past their shelf life for contemporary education remain open.

“I think it’s a blind spot in this country,” said O’Leary, a popular schools administrator who had a chance to see how a different country handles school building planning, having grown up in Ireland.

Over the past 10 years, New Bedford has built a new school (the Jacobs School) and expanded the Sea Lab into a full elementary school (the Taylor School). They are handsome, well-equipped structures (with the exception of an inadequately sized outdoor playground at the Jacobs). 

But it is in the replacement of some of the schools’ plastic, light-depriving windows, installed for a misguided concept of public safety in the 1990s, that you really see the difference in what a well-done upgrade to a school building can make. It is safe to say that the Gomes and Hayden-McFadden buildings in two of the lowest-income neighborhoods in New Bedford have gone from structures that exuded a feeling of despair to ones that literally put their kids in a brighter light with the replacement of those windows. 

The full length windows at the Jirah Swift School in New Bedford were long ago blocked off except for small horizontal section at bottom. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

O’Leary credits Mayor Jon Mitchell for emphasizing a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the city’s schools during his second year in office. “If you track back to 2013, the mayor actually wrote a blueprint for a rebuilding plan,” he said. Then former Chief Financial Officer Ari Sky’s genius for capital planning gave it a boost, he said.

This year, the city has also been able to speed up the process by the reassignment of Mark Champagne from the Department of Facilities Management to the School Department. There, he will oversee the capital construction process, assessing building needs and accurate costs. O’Leary said that will allow truer estimates that could save the city money when it goes before the MSBA.

But perhaps what helped more than anything was the replacement of the state’s former School Building Authority with the Massachusetts School Building Authority under former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2004. The MSBA eliminated a nearly automatic approval of 90 percent state reimbursement for urban systems like New Bedford for new school buildings and replaced it with a system that required communities to meet rigorous standards for new buildings but less onerous ones for refurbishments and upgrades that could be accomplished with newer buildings. The state/community split for urban systems went down to an 80:20 split.

That has resulted in as little as one-year turnarounds for upgrading 1950s and later buildings. The city has completed upgrades at Gomes, Hayden-McFadden, Parker and Carney during the last few years. And it is in the process of rebuilding Carter-Brooks and Pulaski and will soon start on Campbell.

Meanwhile, New Bedford is in the third-year of a rebuilding planning process for the 100-year old DeValles and Congdon schools in the South End. The School Committee and council last week approved the first step toward construction for a combined new school by bidding out for an “owner’s project manager.” Both groups last week also approved the city applying for a “statement of interest” in replacing two 100-year-old North End schools, the Ashley and Jireh Swift, with one new school.

Further down the line will be decisions about what to do with the last three 100-year-old schools, Winslow and Rodman, which are in adjacent neighborhoods in the West End, and the Pacheco School in the North End.

Also on the planning blocks are shorter-term upgrades at the high school, a possible upgrade of the tennis courts, and, believe it or not, they are going to rebuild that planetarium that hasn’t worked in 20-plus years since its software became outdated. Already completed is a refurbishment of the pool for the first time in decades.

Finally, the city plans to refurbish a centrally located North Street industrial building as a Central Kitchen that will allow it to quickly transport hot food to the 100-year-old schools. 

Replacement windows at the Hayden-McFadden School near I-195 in the North End have brought bright light into the building for the first time in 30 or so years when dark plastic windows were installed in many New Bedford Schools. The school, designed 50 years ago, faces the elevated highway, under which its parking lot is located. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

O’Leary explained that the federal government provides universal hot meals in the city. An overwhelming majority of city children are low-income and qualify for the hot meals so the federal and city government finds it more efficient to just provide the hot meals to everyone. That’s a lot of cooking every day.

There was little opposition to plans on either the School Committee or the council’s Finance Committee.

Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima said he attended Hathaway Elementary and the high school when they were new in the 1960s and 1970s. “I’ve seen how they’ve fallen into disrepair in the last 50 years,” he said.

The key to all the funding, which appears to put the city at little financial risk, is the huge amount of money available this year from the state and federal government. 

The MSBA pays for 80 percent of much of the “core” (new building) or “accelerated repair programs.” For the things the state will not pay for, like ADA compliance, the city will fill in some of the gaps in capital planning with its own yearly capital planning fund, which will now be enormously infused by the pandemic relief funds to the school department. 

Called ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief), the city is set to receive $74 million in this fund. And finally, the new Central Kitchen will benefit from U.S. Department of Agriculture funding.

The only person not entirely pumped about the process is the mayor, who noted the deliberative process of the MSBA, which can take six or seven years to bring a new school to fruition.

“It takes so long,” he told O’Leary after the School Committee presentation.
“That’s why it’s important to get started early,” O’Leary said.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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