LAWRENCE — Fifth graders at the Oliver Partnership School aren't yet old enough to vote or pay taxes, but on Wednesday, a group of them realized just how much their young voices mattered.
During a visit to the school, City Council President Marc Laplante and Councilor Jeovanny Rodriguez applauded the group of students in Kaitlyn Gann's English class for the letters they wrote encouraging the City Council to vote in favor of the $132 million budget necessary to fund construction of a new Oliver Partnership School.
Councilors voted on April 6 to pass the budget, with Laplante being the lone dissenter. When he met with students Wednesday morning, Laplante used his position on the issue — and the presence of his adversary Rodriguez — to illustrate to students that even in government, disagreements can eventually turn out for the positive.
"You're looking at two city councilors who don't always agree on everything and (at) the end of the day, our goal is the same: The very best for our city and our residents," Laplante told the students. "We are two people with different ideas."
Laplante and Rodriguez entertained tough questions from the students during an hour-long discussion, with the councilors peppering in tidbits about what makes an effective leader and encouraging the kids to be curious and ask questions.
While the councilors' visit cut into Keri Ryan's math class, students still received a crash course in budgeting from Laplante. After Laplante passed around the city's budget book, a student asked if the council was responsible for paying for all items inside the newly constructed building, too.
"I love your question, because it tells me you realize that not everything is free and that everything — this chair, the pencils you write with, this desk — everything costs money," Laplante told the youngster. "It's not free and your parents work hard to pay their taxes. They have to make a lot of sacrifices. Money is not magical and doesn't come out of the air. It's real and people have to make decisions on it."
Laplante was realistic when explaining to the students why he chose not to vote to support the budget for the new Oliver Partnership School.
"Councilor Rodriguez and I were on different sides of this and that's OK. My opinion was just as valid. I thought $132 million was a lot of money," he said. "Not everyone agreed with me and I was OK with that. I wanted to do some fixes at that school so it was safe and secure so you could focus on learning. Because that number was so big, I wanted to make sure our adults could vote on it. We couldn't do that."
Rodriguez had a decidedly different take.
"Since the beginning, I was sure I was going to vote yes. I believe in education and you guys deserve it," Rodriguez said. "The money factor is important, but ... it doesn't matter how much it cost, to be honest with you. I just focused on what you guys were getting out of it. It's important for you guys to be the future city leaders of Lawrence and we're not going to get that if we don't invest."
Rodriguez and Laplante urged the students to continue speaking their minds and being the change-makers in Lawrence.
"There was one kid sitting where you were and now he's the Latino legislator with the most rank at the state level," Rodriguez said, referring to state Rep. Frank Moran. "That means your school produced enough leadership to be able to advocate for the new school. I got involved and your parents gave me the power to get on the City Council to fight for you guys. You guys have the power to make change. A lot of people are afraid to change. Once you make your voice heard and get involved, things happen."
A grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority is being used to correct a number of deficiencies in the existing Oliver Partnership structure identified by the district, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing concerns. The city is expected to be reimbursed for 46% of the project with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill, expected to be $71 million.
The new construction will combine both the Oliver Partnership School, which normally houses elementary learners in grades one through five, and UP Academy Oliver's students from grades six through eight.
Construction is set to begin in July on the existing building that was first constructed in 1917. Students have been attending class at the former St. Mary Grammar School on Haverhill Street since February when conditions in the Oliver Partnership School necessitated a relocation, Principal Shalimar Quiles said. They will remain at St. Mary's until the new school is opened.