Why Lowell is torn over new high school

Rebuild downtown, or move to the fringe of suburbia?

MEETINGS OF THE LOWELL CITY COUNCIL are typically sparsely attended affairs, characterized by amicable discussions among councilors and unanimous votes. This has all changed in recent weeks, as the city grapples with whether to rebuild its sole public high school at the downtown site it’s occupied nearly since the city’s founding or to build a new facility on its suburban fringe. In either case, the high school project is set to be the costliest in state history, with a price tag in the range of $340 million.

Scores of residents have lined up to speak at public meetings and filled the august City Hall chambers to capacity ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled vote on the plan. The issue has spawned competing campaigns, complete with political action committees, professional websites, lawn signs, and Facebook pages, where the debate has at times taken a nasty turn.

School building controversies are nothing new in Massachusetts, but in Lowell the debate has become a crucible for a host of combustible issues concerning race, class, and the imbalance of political power in the city.

“I’ve never seen anything like this — and I’ve been in Lowell all my life — as polarizing as this,” said City Councilor William Samaras, who was formerly the longtime headmaster of Lowell High School. “Maybe it’s a result of the Clinton-Trump election, and it’s just carried into the neighborhoods. I know families that are totally split on this issue.”

After months of discussions and presentations, two options have emerged as the leading contenders for a new high school. One, known as Option 3, would be a gut rehab and expansion of the existing downtown campus; it would entail using eminent domain to take a dental office building in order to minimize the disruption to students during construction. The other plan is to build a new high school from the ground up on the eastern edge of the city next to Cawley Memorial Stadium, which already serves as the high school’s primary athletic fields.

The estimated cost of the Cawley option is $336-$339 million, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority covering roughly half that amount. The downtown option would cost about $353 million, but the building authority would pick up about 60 percent of that tab. For city taxpayers, the downtown plan would be slightly cheaper: $143 million versus $149-$152 million for Cawley.

One of the main reasons for the school’s hefty price is its scale. Designed to accommodate more than 3,500 students, the high school will be one of the largest in the region, if not the state.

And both high school options carry additional “soft costs” that won’t be reimbursed by the building authority. In the case of the downtown plan, there’s the estimated $2 million to buy the dental building, whose owners are reluctant to sell. The Cawley plan would come with more substantial costs: close to $4 million for sidewalks and roadway improvements to deal with an influx of traffic into a residential area, and an estimated $3.2 million a year to bus kids from across the city to the school. (Lowell currently does not offer busing to high school students.)

From a distance, Cawley might appear the more compelling option. The city would get a new, thoroughly modern campus, consolidated alongside its football stadium, for about the same price as rebuilding an ailing urban complex of buildings hemmed in all sides.

“This is a building that has been condemned by the Board of Health,” said Kim Scott, a leader in the pro-Cawley campaign and a former school committee member. Cawley, on the other hand, would be a “brand new, state-of-the-art building,” she said.

Indeed, a Cawley high school might resemble the kind of sleek, college-esque high school campuses one can find in the state’s wealthier suburbs.

But Lowell, of course, is not a well-heeled town but a struggling city with a population that is nearly half minority. This diversity is especially pronounced in the school system; 60 percent of students are Asian and Hispanic and more than half are considered economically disadvantaged. Many of these students live close to the central city and walk to the high school or rely on public transit. It’s estimated that 17 percent of the city’s population doesn’t have access to a vehicle.

These factors are front and center for those who back keeping the high school downtown. “The biggest overriding reason is the central location,” said Maria Sheehy, one of the organizers of the pro-downtown campaign. “We strongly believe in having equal access to education.”

Downtown supporters also point out that a significant number of Lowell High students participate in after-school enrichment programs offered through nonprofits and the community college, which are located downtown, as is the main public library.

This isn’t the first time concerns about equity among Lowell’s diverse communities have reared their head. And such tensions have again come to the fore after a civil rights group slapped a federal lawsuit on the city last month that aims to force changes to its electoral system. Lowell has an exclusively at-large, or citywide, election system, which, the suit alleges, has led to an all-white city government. Six of the city’s nine city councilors live in the same neighborhood of Belvidere, which is much wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole. It’s also where Cawley is located.

The lawsuit filed last month by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice claims that the debate around sites for a new high school illustrates how the interests of minorities are overlooked. Members of minority communities “complained about a lack of information about the plans, and demanded additional informational meetings about the proposals with Spanish and Khmer language translators,” the complaint notes.

To be sure, some residents in minority neighborhoods support the Cawley plan. Sovann Khon, a member of the city’s large Cambodian community, said the downtown setting of the high school exposes kids to negative influences. He said one of his sons who went to the high school got into trouble with drugs and dropped out; his other kids, who went to the Greater Lowell Technical School, located in a rural setting just outside the city, graduated.

“Young kids are vulnerable to their surroundings,” Khon said. “They get better surroundings, a better environment, it’s more likely they’ll have no choice but to go to school and graduate.”

But former city councilor Vesna Nuon said most of the Asian and Hispanic residents he’s spoken to want to keep the school downtown. “A lot of these kids don’t have a computer at home. A lot use the library to do their homework,” said Nuon, who is making another run for city council this year.

Meanwhile, some Cawley supporters have warned that rebuilding the school downtown would consign a generation of students to portables and trigger an exodus of families from the public school system.

As one commenter on the pro-Cawley Facebook page, which has more than 4,100 members, put it: “I’m tired of hearing that taking our kids out of Lowell if LHS stays downtown is an idle threat. Mark my words….. My kids and their funding dollars WILL NOT BE IN LOWELL. Never. Ever. Ever.”

In some ways the debate in Lowell echoes one a decade ago in Lawrence.   The city opted to relocate its high school outside downtown, erecting a $110 million campus that officials hailed at its opening in 2007 as one of the most “cutting edge” facilities in the country. Three years later the Lawrence district would be placed in state receivership for chronic poor performance. (Its test scores have improved markedly in recent years.)

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Samaras, the veteran Lowell city councilor, said he still hasn’t decided which high school option he’ll vote for on Tuesday. But he lamented that something was being lost amid the heated debate.

“The problem I have with all this is it’s polarized the community. People want to win; they’re not looking at the full picture,” he said. “Right now there’s too much emphasis on the buildings — it’s really about the education.”