Guest column Patrick O’Connor: ‘Our children deserve this’

  • A rendering by Jones Whitsett Architects of the two proposed middle schools in Holyoke.

Published: 10/3/2019 8:00:29 PM
Modified: 10/3/2019 8:00:19 PM

In a few years, I will have to decide whether my sons will spend most of their day in overcrowded classrooms with poor ventilation. Some classes will have no natural light and the windows won’t open. Unsafe hallways will have blindspots that can’t be monitored. Occasionally, when it rains, water will leak in.

These are some of the smaller issues at H.B. Lawrence and Peck schools. In both schools, windows, doors, roofs and heating systems need to be repaired or replaced. There are substandard communications systems, and a lack of outdoor spaces for children.

We have known about these problems for years, but have chosen not to invest.

On Nov. 5, we can change this. I’m asking you to please vote for new schools in Holyoke.

At the upcoming general election, we can vote to make sure our children do not have to face what my sons will have to face if we vote “no” to building two new middle schools. We can take a collective, concrete step toward turning around our public schools by building new ones.

To do so, we need to approve a debt exclusion that will pay for the schools. The combined project cost (including the cost of all the previous studies, design fees, construction costs, furnishings, technology and contingencies) is $132.9 million.

Of this, the city will pay $57 million. The state wants to help and has already agreed to pay $75.8 million. Now, Holyoke needs to say we will not neglect our schools any longer.

Our share will be paid for by a debt exclusion, which is also known as a bond. We can pay for the bond through a commercial and residential property tax increase that will not impact our city budget. Basically, just as you would when buying a new home, we will take out a 30-year mortgage to pay for new schools. On average, homeowners will pay a tax increase of $130 a year.

The tax increase will not start for three years, giving us time to pay down the bond. Right now, city councilors, the mayor and school officials are finding ways to do just that, including improving the city’s bond rating, setting aside saving from improvements in the schools and using grant money. In three years, the increase will be even lower.

The payback from such an investment, however, cannot be measured with a calculator. The intellectual and physical well-being of our children will not show up on a spread-sheet, but it is just as real, and more valuable.

Families, teachers and students have been seeking to change our school structure for years. The two middle schools will have about 550 students in each, creating smaller learning environments and making the schools safer. It will also allow for more individual attention to students. As a result, fewer students will fall between the cracks during these important developmental years.

Furthermore, our elementary schools — which now house middle school students — will have more room. Consequently, operational costs in the elementary schools will drop, saving money that can go toward paying off the bond.

Each new middle school will be about two-thirds the size of the current Peck School. The first floor will have a cafeteria, gym, music rooms, a library and other large spaces for collaboration. The three upper floors will each support a single grade level divided into two clusters of 90 students each. Again, students will be in a more focused, individualized environment.

Our taxes will also pay for a new STEM lab, a learning-commons, and an exercise and dance classroom. The schools will be air conditioned and designed to support community-use in the evenings and year-round.

In effect, the schools — which will be located next to the current H.B Lawrence School and in the location of the current Peck School — will go beyond being spaces for our students and become gathering places for our community.

Holyoke deserves this.

In the end, I am lucky. My wife and I can choose where our children go to school. Ten years ago, we chose Holyoke. Yet, we have a choice to send our sons out of district if Holyoke tells them their education isn’t worth the money. We have a choice to send them to a city or town that is willing to invest in their education.

Other parents have already made this choice. They left long ago. If we vote yes, I believe they will return. I believe more parents will choose Holyoke.

If we vote no, however, Holyoke will lose access to the $75.8 million offered by the state. Our children will return to schools that are in disrepair, except now we will have to foot the bill to fix them alone.

Let’s make a smarter choice. Let’s say we will not neglect our schools any longer. Let’s bring our schools into the 21st century.

New buildings equal new educational options: There will be grade level classroom clusters to enable team teaching. There will be de-escalation spaces, and offices for academic coaches and teacher planning near classrooms.

Nature will become part of classrooms, with natural light and windows that open, and outdoor classrooms. We only have one opportunity to make this happen. Let’s not miss it.

Let’s say Holyoke is ready. Let’s say we are ready to invest. Let’s make that the message our children hear.

Homeowners, please vote. Renters, please vote.

Our children deserve this.

For more information about the design, go to www.hps.holyoke.ma.us/turnaround/msredesign/.

For more information on how you can help with the vote, go to https://yestoinvestholyoke.com/.

Patrick O’Connor, of Holyoke, has two children in the Holyoke public schools.


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