There was a time in the early 20th century when the booming industrial powerhouse of New Bedford built a new public school every year.
We are in a very different time now.
New public elementary schools, and even expansions of existing schools, cost in the vicinity of $100 million. So a post-industrial city like New Bedford — a place with a meager property tax base and a still struggling economy — is lucky if it can build a new school every five or 10 years. And that’s with a bunch of state aid.
When the city of New Bedford is lucky enough to build a new school, it also has to get the planning for that building right because it’s going to have to live with it for a half century or more.
Which brings me to a tale of two schools: The planned new DeValles/Congdon school, on which New Bedford hopes to break ground just off Goulart Square early next year. And the five-year-old Irwin Jacobs Elementary School, which the city opened in 2018 to replace the then 100-plus-year-old Hannigan School after its roof had collapsed.
Just a half decade after the state-of-the-art Jacobs School opened on the South End peninsula, the New Bedford School Department this spring had to rebuild much of its playground.
Educators in the building had long told school administration officials that the dream playground, recognized with national architectural awards at the time school opened, just didn’t work for younger students. And that playground was not much better for older students who at recess prefer engaging in running-based games, not climbing on the Jacob’s exotic rope pyramids, which currently take up most of the space in the very small school yard.
What’s more, some of the wood used to build the cutting-edge play space that didn’t work well for actual children was the wrong type and quickly rotted.
So this spring, the School Department, at the request of the Jacobs principal and teachers (who had formed a special committee developing recommendations), spent a little over $102,000 rebuilding the tots’ portion of the playground, where the previous implements were deemed by educators to be too big and “unsafe” for the school’s K-2nd grade students.
The School Department paid almost $40,000 for the site preparation work and wood chip base out of its own funds and the school’s namesake, city native and education philanthropist Irwin Jacobs, earmarked almost $64,000 from his annual grant to the school for the new playground equipment.
In the future, Interim Superintendent Andrew O’Leary said the ropeworks area may also have to be revamped in favor of an open space where the older kids at the elementary school (Grades 3-5) can play the kind of recess games where they can run around on a flat surface.
O’Leary described the amount paid for the upgrade as “a typically small amount for maintenance” (akin to renovating a classroom or office), but he also described the original playground at Jacobs as “an architect’s dream, not an educator’s dream.”
The lack of outdoor running space for recess activities at the new Jacobs School has long been a sore point with this writer.
Mayor Mitchell curtly dismissed my concerns about inadequate recess space at the new school when I wrote about it in 2017, the year before the school opened. I have a very clear recollection of a conversation in which his honor told me the new Jacobs was an urban school and that urban schools don’t have big school yards.
The mayor is fond of pointing out the legitimate accomplishments of the new Jacobs — the high-tech setup, the computers that Irwin Jacobs paid for, the roof garden and the piano lab. But it’s the cramped traffic conditions and the lack of playground space around Jacobs that those who use the school up close-and-personal deal with every day.
The planning for the Jacobs School was not comprehensive enough, especially in terms of its relationship to the abutting neighborhood. In fact, for years after it opened, the playground was locked away from community use.
The school building committee for the $37 million Jacobs School declined to spend an extra $3 million over a 30-year bond to take three private properties along Brock Avenue. That modest burden on the taxpayer would have allowed the bigger playgrounds, not to mention a more visible connection to the school’s surrounding neighborhood on the peninsula.
To be fair, New Bedford was recovering from the 2008 Great Recession at the time and money was tight, although it is still hard to understand this kind of poverty logic on a three-decade bond.
The 350-student, $37 million new Jacobs School opened in 2017. By way of comparison, the new 750-student school proposed to replace the DeValles and Congdon schools is estimated to cost $100 million if it is built on the present DeValles site, and $100 million to $113 million if it is built at the so-called Goodyear site, a nearby factory complex that has been demolished for decades.
Construction costs have escalated sharply in the five years since the COVID pandemic, and the school will be nearly twice the size of Jacobs.
If New Bedford were to build two new elementary schools instead of combining the DeValles and Congdon it would cost tens of millions of dollars more.
So the DeValles School Building Committee has recommended constructing a two-story new school on the Goodyear site. The onetime factory land has already been tested for contamination and deemed safe for a housing development. Environmental contamination “absolutely” will not be a problem, the city’s director of environmental stewardship, Michele Paul, told the City Council this week.
Interim Superintendent O’Leary said the problems “shoehorning” the new Jacobs School onto a too small site were very much front and center on the DeValles/Congdon School Building Committee’s mind. It decided to avoid, if possible, crowding another new school onto a site that is too small for what it needs to do for the city’s youth.
The Lincoln School, opened in 2010 during the administration of Mayor Scott Lang on the same site as the old Lincoln School, also has had space problems in its neighborhood. It initially did not have adequate space for the bus drop-offs, and the city had to come up with an innovative drop-off plan to address traffic gridlock in the surrounding neighborhood.
The DeValles Building Committee took a more comprehensive approach, learning from past decisions, according to O’Leary.
“At the Goodyear site, we can build from the ground up. Essentially we can build a dream school from the ground up,” the superintendent said.
If the committee had recommended the DeValles site, it would have had to accept crowding two new wings attached to the current DeValles building in a tight space, “shoehorning” as O’Leary describes it.
One plan was to expand DeValles north to a nearby shopping plaza, which would have literally blocked off the classic front door of the historic DeValles School building from plain sight. So much for historic preservation.
The other onsite DeValles plan was to expand south, but that would have resulted in locating a children’s play area next to the noise and possible fumes from the Wing’s auto body shop. Either that or risk a possibly long eminent domain process to take the Wing’s property, not to mention any hazardous contamination at the still operating auto shop.
At the expansive and vacant Goodyear site, the students won’t be saddled with cramped conditions, undersized facilities like a smaller than optimum cafeteria or gymnasium, O’Leary said. Safe, separate entrances for parent drop-offs and bus drop-offs can be had, locating classes and prep spaces in nearby locations. All the things that make the most sense, according to contemporary best education practices, can be realized.
Mitchell, chair ex-officio of the School Committee, said he has signed off on the building committee’s decision but he does not believe the issues with building at the DeValles site were as clear cut as the committee did. Overall, however, he said he has been convinced that the Goodyear site is the best place for the new school.
“I bought their arguments in the end,” the mayor said.
Mitchell has said that educational research shows that two smaller schools would actually be better for an urban school district like New Bedford. But that would have added tens of millions to the cost and is essentially undoable in any kind of timely manner for the city. So the architects are trying to design a larger school that supports both student safety and best educational practices, he said.
There has been some politics around the two sites.
Jon Carvalho, a close political aide to Mitchell and former mayoral spokesman, had written a letter to the New Bedford Light last month arguing against the Goodyear site. A resident of the Goulart Square neighborhood where the school will be built, Carvalho said the Goodyear land should be preserved for affordable housing.
After discussions with O’Leary, however, Carvalho withdrew his objections to taking the land by eminent domain lest construction be delayed by dropping out of the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s queue.
Councilor-at-large Shane Burgo, a champion of affordable housing who voted for the eminent domain taking, said he also wants to take a closer look at whether the site should be used for housing. But he also did not, he said, want to endanger the city’s place in the MSBA building queue. The MSBA finances only a few schools across the state each year, and pays for a majority of the cost.
As the city chugs along trying to meet the MSBA’s deadlines — to miss them would be to delay construction, adding millions of dollars to the cost of the school — the council unanimously made a preliminary vote to take the Goodyear property by eminent domain on Tuesday.
This is the way planning gets done in the city of New Bedford, and for my observation, this planning was better than usual.
O’Leary said he is proud of the methodical and comprehensive approach the DeValles Building Committee took.
“Our report, our submission to the MSBA was touted as a model of how an education plan should be written,” he told the council Tuesday of the new DeValles/Congdon plan.
O’Leary may be interim superintendent, but I think it’s safe to say he has been the most dynamic force in the School Department over the past half decade. He has made a name for himself in recent years finding ways to finance school buildings (including a new central kitchen) in difficult budget circumstances. He testified recently to a state legislative committee on the inadequacy of the MSBA’s current funding formulas for urban schools like New Bedford.
Talking to O’Leary, you get a clear sense of how on top of the issue he is, and that nothing had escaped him on that building committee.
He deflected the praise, however, to other members of the committee including Interim Deputy Superintendent Darcie Aungst, the New Bedford schools’ elementary curriculum manager at the time of the committee’s meetings, Thomas Nickerson of the New Bedford Educators Association and School Committee member Bruce Oliveira, who chaired the committee.
The committee took the job seriously; educators are not shallow people, he said.
“The MSBA was gushing over our design.”
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.