Boston school officials said last night that the West Roxbury Education Complex building almost didn't open for classes last month - and that emergency repairs done on it so it could pass inspection will only hold out for the rest of the school year.
Faced with the possibility of a mold-infested building with a leaky roof and potentially collapsing capstones that could fall on people entering or leaving the building, officials say they had little choice but to order the building shut at the end of the current school year - and to make the building's razing and replacement one of the first of 12 major rebuilding and new school projects over the next ten years.
The West Roxbury Academy and the Urban Science Academy that now occupy the building would be dissolved, their students offered seats in other schools across the city.
Officials discussed the details of what's wrong with the building only after most people who attended a School Committee meeting to oppose the plan had already left. The meeting, which started shortly after 6 p.m., and ran past midnight, also included discussions of and protests over plans to shut the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester for renovation into a 7-12 high school, as some of the first steps in the 10-year, $1-billion BuildBPS program to create 12 new schools - mostly through extensive rehabilitation of existing BPS buildings.
Officials emphasized that both the West Roxbury and McCormack proposals have yet to be set in stone - although they added they have little choice when it comes to West Roxbury because decades of deferred maintenance have left the building with just a few months left of life, at least as a building safe for occupancy.
Interim School Superintendent Laura Perille said BPS will hold community meetings across the city on the proposals - and the rest of the BuildBPS plan - before the School Committee holds a vote in December.
Students, parents and teachers at the three schools who filled the School Committee chambers at the beginning of yesterday's meeting said they were angry the news was sprung on them and upset that the plans call for the dissolution of the communities they have built up. Parents of students in an autism program at West Roxbury said they were particularly hurt by the news because it's one that actually works for their kids.
West Roxbury students said they did not understand why BPS could not move the school programs to other buildings in the BPS system, as had been done for kids at the Dearborn STEM school in Roxbury.
School Committee members Miren Uriarte and Jeri Robinson were not thrilled, either. "What if a tornado hit Boston Latin School?" Uriarte asked. The idea that BPS would not move mountains to keep that school's students and teachers together would be absurd, she said.
Long after the students, teachers and parents left, Perille said that officials are hopeful they can move the autism and other special-education programs to other schools intact - although not necessarily all to the same building. Perille added she hopes to move the programs' teachers with the students, but said that would require discussions with the teachers' union.
She said other students at the schools will get individualized help in figuring out which schools to go to - along with priority in the lottery for seats at them. Students would even get special help to apply for possible seats at exam schools, she said. She added officials also plan extra help for rising seniors on such things as college recommendations after they move to new schools.
BPS COO John Hanlon said officials tried to find space for the West Roxbury students and their teachers, but couldn't find any large enough for just one of the schools, let alone both. The abandoned Rogers Middle School in Hyde Park is large enough, but it's also in bad shape, he said. School Committee Chairman Micahel Loconto said, as an example, the building would need to have sprinklers installed before it could be used.
Perille said the West Roxbury building has been falling apart for years - an example of the neglect the BuildBPS program is supposed to end. In 2016, she said, the state rejected a BPS request for funding for a new roof because the building might not support it. BPS then paid for repairs, rather than a replacement, but the nor'easters this past March destroyed the repairs and opened up new ways for rain to get in the building.
In July, an ISD inspector said the building was no safe or fit for occupancy - the roof leaks had led to soggy, moldy carpeting in the library, ceiling tiles were falling and heavy capstones along the roof were crumbling and looked ready to fall.
Perille said BPS paid for emergency repairs to make the building safe for the current school year, but said ISD warned the building would be unlikely to pass another inspection after that. She said that just fixing the exterior problems for the long term would cost $11 million and that with an entirely new school costing about $100 million, it made sense to just shut the building at the end of the school year, raze it and put up a new building - even though that could take seven years.
Officials did not discuss what will happen to the $18-million athletic fields the Boston Parks Department installed at West Roxbury in 2015.
In contrast to West Roxbury, the McCormack is not in bad shape, but officials are looking to closing it as part of an overall plan to eliminate all of Boston's middle schools - so that students and parents would no longer have to go through a three-school process in BPS but could instead move from a K-6 school to a 7-12 one or from a K-8 school to a 9-12 one.
McCormack students would be moved to space in Excel High School at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Parents and students criticized that for moving the kids - many of whom are in ESL programs - to a troubled high school with few ESL programs. Haven Jones, a clinical social worker at the McCormack, questioned moving the school into Excel, which first opened in 1901 - what happens, she asks, when BPS decides that building is too old and moves all its students out?
Officials acknowledged they would have preferred moving the McCormack programs to a "high performing" high school, but that none of those had enough space for the middle-school students.
At the end of the construction, McCormack student at Excel would have priority for seats in the new 7-12 school in the building. Officials added the new building would not be a new school - they would instead move an existing high school to the space.
One of BuildBPS's goals to create new school space in neighborhoods that are either short of them now or have students who cannot easily get to quality programs. In addition to the 12 new or revamped buildings BPS hopes to build, it expects to start a regular rehab program that would mean a new or revamped school coming online every other year after the main BuildBPS program is finished.
Officials said the initial program will prioritize new construction or major renovations in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury and East Boston. But officials said that converting the Irving Middle School in Roslindale into a new use can't happen until additional elementary seats are opened in the neighborhoods it now serves, primarily Roslindale and Hyde Park. In fact, only Allston/Brighton would not see major new construction, in part because its elementary schools already have more seats than students to fill them.
They added that new or rebuilt schools will give priority to ESL and special-education programs for new space, in part because most such programs are now concentrated in just a few schools.
Officials said they are working with the BPDA to identify potentially vacant land that could be used to expand some schools - and did not rule out selling off some BPS land that would no longer be needed after all the reconfiguration.