Methuen School Committee OKs transfer of school for youth center

File photo. The old Pleasant Valley School may soon become a youth center.

METHUEN — The School Committee Monday night agreed to transfer the old Pleasant Valley School to the city so it can be converted into a youth center.

The committee voted 6-0, with member Jana Zanni Pesce voting "present," to declare the building surplus. The matter now goes to the City Council and the mayor to craft a deal with a local nonprofit group called Inspirational Ones, to turn it into a youth center.

Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, recently finished a 159-mile hike across the state to raise money for the renovation of the building. She brought in about $105,000, short of her goal of $159,000, or $1,000 per mile.

She was pleased with Monday night's vote.

"I'm so grateful to the mayor (Neil Perry) and School Committee for their thoughtful deliberation of how to best support the youth in this endeavor," she said. "They had a great discussion. We are lucky to have such a great group of people who genuinely care ... (and who will) help make the vision of a Methuen Youth and Community Center a reality."

There was some discussion on points raised by Pesce about whether the school department was giving up a valuable asset and also whether the building would revert to the school department if the youth center project fell through or moved to another location.

"I'm apprehensive about giving away an asset without the caveat that if it falls through we can get it back," Pesce said, adding, however, that "if Sen. DiZoglio is working on it, it will get done."

Superintendent Brandi Kwong said the building is unusable as a school because it's too small. She also said renovating it and bringing it up to code will be costly because the building isn't compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and also has "abatement issues," generally meaning the presence of asbestos or lead paint.

It is currently being used for the storage of historic documents and school furniture and equipment. An exterior part of the complex is used for the storage and maintenance of school vehicles such as snowplows.

The committee's vote included the caveat that a suitable place must be found in the city for the stored materials before the nonprofit group starts work on the building.

An amendment proposed by Pesce requiring the building be returned to the school department in case the project fails was rejected on a 4-3 vote, with Pesce, Ryan DiZoglio and Karen Hallbauer voting in favor while Perry, Jessica MacLeod, Louann Santos and Susan Nicholson voted against it.

Inspirational Ones is a nonprofit started by Susan Leger Ferraro, a local businesswoman who started the day care chain of Little Sprouts, which now has locations in 25 communities, including throughout Essex County and the Merrimack Valley.

DiZoglio and Leger Ferraro, who are both from Methuen, were speaking earlier this year about youth issues in the city and hatched a plan for the new youth center.

Inspirational Ones for years was known as the Leadership and Literacy Foundation and was affiliated with Little Sprouts before becoming its own entity and being renamed Inspirational Ones in 2008, according to inspirationalones.org.

According to Leger Ferraro's website, susanvibe.com, the organization "provides programs for inner-city young adults, such as Project STRIVE, Pathways, and Connect, to support GED, ESOL, leadership, and life-skills development that lead to job placement and economic sustainability in inner cities."

Jess Brenes, the Chief Operating Officer of G3 Consulting, also owned by Leger Ferraro, said the idea for the Methuen youth center was based on feedback from a youth survey conducted over the summer by Inspirational Ones.

She said about 100 people participated.

"Then we created a youth advisory group, which has become MY Voice," she said, noting that the MY stands for "Methuen Youth."

It's made of students from freshmen to sophomores, some of whom spoke two weeks ago at a School Committee meeting seeking support for declaring the Pleasant Valley School as surplus property so it could be converted into a youth center.

One of those students who spoke, 14-year-old Calysa Alba, a ninth-grader at Methuen High, said she's happy to be part of the new youth advisory group and is even more thrilled to be working on the youth center project.

"It was something I really wanted to get involved in," she said about MY Voice, adding that "one of the original ideas was to get a youth center. I was excited to be part of a team that was working for the youth and kids in our community. I felt it was really important and I wanted to be part of it."

She said the city needs to pay more attention to youth in the community beyond the fact that they are students in local schools.

"We are members of the community and we have concerns and ideas about how to better the community," she said. "With the little time this group has been together we've already achieved one of our top goals. I'm excited to see our vision come to life."

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