Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, President of the North Bennet Street School, presented to the Eliot School Family Council this week regarding a likely NBSS bid for the North St. buildings as part of a building swap. He asked for the support of the Eliot parents based on his proposal’s potential for expanding the Eliot K-8 school into the current NBSS properties. About 40 parents listened intently, asked questions and raised several issues as they ascertain the ongoing process.
The John Eliot K-8 is the only public school in Downtown Boston located on Charter St. in the North End. In recent years, parents have initiated several campaigns to expand the well-regarded, but overcrowded, school that has been a turnaround story under Principal Traci Griffith. (View post on efforts to expand the Eliot.)
NBSS is a private trade school with a long history in the North End that is also looking for more space for its programs. The Eliot and NBSS buildings are around the block from each other in the North End.
The impetus for the discussion is the Request for Proposal recently issued by the City of Boston to sell its two large buildings on North St., between Richmond St. and Cross St. on the Greenway. One building was the City’s former printing plant and the other a police station. First round bids are due on February 16, 2012.
The RFP includes specific language that would favor a NBSS building swap and move to North St. followed by an expansion of the Eliot School into the existing NBSS buildings. Notably, the RFP gives preference to responses with “a public purpose” benefiting city residents. The Eliot has a waiting list larger than its current student population, so a plan allowing for expansion of the public school certainly meets the standard of a community benefit.
Importantly for NBSS, the City’s RFP says it will accept a North End property swap instead of a cash proposal. The property swap must include a North End building over 24,000 square feet. The NBSS existing properties include about 40,000 sq. ft. in the North End and 10,000 sq. ft. at its Arlington site. The combined North St. buildings are over 70,000 sq. ft. in capacity.
Gómez-Ibáñez believes NBSS will still need to make up a $4 million valuation gap between the value of his current property and the $11.3 million assessment of the larger North St. buildings. The RFP cites the $11.3 million assessment value as the minimum bid that will be acceptable. The NBSS President cautioned that raising large funds in such a short period may be challenging for the trade school. Further, he estimates another $12 million will be required to renovate the vacant North St. buildings.
At the meeting, some parents expressed concerns that an Eliot K-8 expansion is not a specifically identified outcome of the North St. buildings bid/sale process by the City or NBSS. One parent said they wanted to make sure their support would not be used for a “bait and switch.” Several attendees asked how a NBSS/North St. swap would ensure the Eliot K-8 could expand in the short-term as well as a represent a longer-term solution.
The NBSS President laid out a rough timeline of how, if his bid is successful, the trade school operations would move in phases to North St. With each phase, more space would become available for the Eliot classes.
City officials have commented in the press that the Eliot K-8 cannot be moved directly to the North St. buildings because it is too expensive for the city to renovate them. Some parents were surprised the option of a direct move had not been more seriously considered and questioned the city’s undisclosed estimates for renovation.
“I do think this process is to help the Eliot,” said Gómez-Ibáñez. He noted that Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson has visited NBSS as have BPS consultants. The NBSS buildings would also require some renovation before it could be used as a public school.
For parents on the Eliot School Family Council, time is of the essence because their children are already at the currently strained public school. Emphasizing the need for both short-term and more permanent solution has been a key theme for the parents.
Some Eliot parents asked if NBSS could include language in its RFP response that would give some assurance of a short-term expansion for the Eliot K-8, in exchange for a letter of support from the parents group. He responded that it would be difficult to tell the City what to do with their building, but NBSS would “respond to the RFP as written.” A second round of negotiations might give the bidders more flexibility in providing accommodations, he mentioned.
The Eliot Family Council President noted, “We have to bifurcate our needs” indicating the parents’ group hesitancy to put all of their eggs in one basket at the expense of other options. Another parent said the council would have to consider “where we belong in this.”
Other bidders for the North St. buildings are unknown at this time. “There is always a chance someone could come in with a lot more money,” said the NBSS President. The properties have been speculated to be of interest for hotel and apartment development.
The Eliot K-8 is a public school, the only one in downtown Boston where family populations are growing. It is “busting at the seams,” according to one parent. City officials have long discussed expansion options and BPS has reportedly scouted out several potential locations for a move or expansion, including NBSS.
One group carefully watching the process, and largely responsible for pushing out the RFP with its terms is the Boston Finance Commission, a City of Boston watchdog group appointed by the Governor. FinComm wrote a letter in December 2010 strongly encouraging the City to move forward with a sale of the North St. buildings. (View the December 2010 letter to the Mayor’s Office from the Boston Finance Commission.) At the time, FinComm did not support a property swap, emphasizing the highest market price would be in the best interest of taxpayers and the City’s budget. However, recent comments by FinComm Executive Director Matt Cahill, indicate a moderation of that position if the sale would support a public benefit such as helping the public Eliot K-8 school.
The two North End / Waterfront neighborhood groups have also taken differing stances. The North End / Waterfront Residents’ Association, NEWRA, has issued a letter in support of the NBSS swap for the North St. buildings. (View the May 2011 NEWRA letter.) On the other hand, the North End / Waterfront Neighborhood Council, NEWNC, is on the record asking for a complete stop to the sale process of the North St. buildings. Its letter says, “While the school district searches for a long-term solution to address the increased demand for space at the highly-successful Eliot K-8 School, NEWNC believes that the first step is to place a moratorium on the sale, lease or disposition of potentially suitable city-owned property in or around the North End that has sufficient capacity to house or supplement the classroom needs of the Eliot K-8 School.” (View the NEWNC letter.)
About two years ago, NBSS started offering a woodworking class for Eliot students. This semester, the trade school is providing two expansion classrooms for specialty classes. Gómez-Ibáñez said the NBSS spent about $60,000 to move its locksmith department and make space for the Eliot students. In exchange, NBSS is receiving rent-free space from the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the Seaport District.
“A successful NBSS bid would be a positive outcome for Eliot and good for the North End,” concluded the NBSS President.
As a next step, Eliot parents asked for a tour of the NBSS facilities, to envision how a potential expansion might work. There is a central gym/stage space with a high ceiling, according to Gómez-Ibáñez and about three classrooms on each floor. The NBSS President also noted that his private entity can make things happen quickly, as soon as six months after they gain control of the new property.