LAWRENCE — Tuesday night, Oliver Partnership School fifth grader Endy Leonardo spoke on behalf of nearly 500 of his classmates and the students who will follow in his footsteps when he convinced city councilors his school is worth investing in.
Leonardo joined a chorus of more than a dozen residents, educators, parents and local leaders to urge the council to approve a $132.3 million bond order for construction of a new Oliver Partnership School.
“Our school is not the best because the walls are just all over the place and there is only one bathroom for the whole school, one for the boys and one for the girls. The ceilings drop on students and teachers and only get painted once a year,” young Leonardo said in his plea to councilors. “The only reason we’re doing this is because our school is so old."
His pitch worked.
Six councilors voted to spend the necessary money for the school. Due to a conflict of interest, Councilor Estela Reyes recused herself from the vote and all related conversation and Councilor David Abdoo was not present at the meeting to vote.
Council President Marc Laplante was the lone dissenting vote. In the past, Laplante has said the passage of the school’s budget would result in a “perfect storm” for Lawrence taxpayers, who could see an increase of more than $200 for the average single family homeowner.
A grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority is being used to correct a number of deficiencies in the existing structure identified by the district, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing concerns. The state reimbursement, however, has a cap on eligible expenses, Business Manager Mark Ianello has said, of $333 per square foot. The city is expected to be reimbursed for 46% of the project with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill, making the city's portion more like $71 million, Ianello said.
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’s 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.
As part of the vote, councilors made a request that Lawrence residents received priority hiring opportunities for the project, along with city businesses. Additionally, stakeholders including Consigli Construction and project management firm Pinck & Company are expected to issue project updates to the council at regular intervals to be shared with the community.
“Our students lost a lot in light of the pandemic, but losing this building was not an option,” Quiles said after the vote passed. “We continue to be so inspired by our students, families and staff who took a stand and sent the message that our students deserve better. Our community heard them loud and clear and last night’s vote is a testament to this.”
Former Mayor Daniel Rivera called the win a “vote for advancing education,” with Superintendent Cynthia Paris praising councilors for advocating for students in Lawrence for generations to come.
“We all should thank the City Council for taking hard votes when it matters,” said Rivera, who sits on the Lawrence Alliance for Education receivership board that makes decisions on behalf of the public school system.
Teacher Jessi Dimmock is among the staff members who will benefit from the new building. Dimmock currently teaches at UP Academy Oliver, the middle school that would join the new complex.
“I want to live and teach in a community that invests in education and spends money where it is most needed: Our students and their learning,” Dimmock said during the council meeting. “If we want students to learn, they need to feel safe. I implore you to think about the learning that takes place when students feel safe and appreciated. It does not just come from teachers, it comes from a building that shows how much we love and believe in our students.”
Mayor Kendrys Vasquez is expected to formally sign the bond order authorizing the transfer during a press conference on Thursday afternoon, his office said.