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Council OKs Lowell High Loan Order

May 8, 2019

LOWELL -- After years of debate, the vote was unanimous.

All nine city councilors voted in favor of the $343.4 million loan order funding the expansion and renovation of the downtown Lowell High School Tuesday night.

The decision, which was met by a standing ovation, followed an equally positive hearing where a number of local leaders spoke in favor of the loan order. No one spoke in dissent.

“This facility is going to take our students to the highest points that they can go,” said Superintendent of Schools Jeannine Durkin. “Our students deserve this.”

The vote came after the siting of the new school divided the city in a roller-coaster process that, at different points, saw the City Council approve locating a new high school at Cawley Stadium, the School Committee taking the City Council to court over the right to make the decision and the Massachusetts School Building Authority delaying approval of the project until the city could unite. It also fed the flames of a contentious 2017 election season, where voters in a non-binding referendum expressed a preference for the existing downtown location over Cawley Stadium.

City Councilors Rodney Elliott and Rita Mercier previously opposed the downtown location, but voted in favor of the loan order Tuesday night.

“Although this option was not my choice and plans didn’t go my way, the goal ahead of us all at this time is to move on and create through this vote the best educational environment for our children to which every Lowell High School student is entitled to and deserves,” Mercier said. “My vote this evening will be to support this project and the future of each student and support this project with the hope that this project be on-time and on-budget.”

Elliott brought up a point previously made by one of the speakers: The controversy was over the location of the high school, not whether the city should build one. All agreed on the latter point, he said.

“I’m going to support this,” he said. “I do think it’s important to move forward and continue to work to build the best high school that is cost effective. ... It is exciting. We’re moving forward.”

Several speakers drew on the history of Lowell and the school in their support. Former Lowell High School Headmaster Brian Martin listed famous graduates and the school’s policy of integration from its earliest days.

A letter by Michael Gallagher, a prominent local attorney and vocal supporter of the high school, brought up the controversy faced by the City Council of 50 years ago when it tried to fund the construction of 14 schools. He also referenced the current push to make Lowell a UNESCO recognized Learning City.

Mayor William Samaras spoke about the creation of Lowell National Historical Park 40 years ago. He argued the downtown location of the high school makes “a level playing field for all students rich or poor.”

“It’s part of our history,” he said. “It’s part of our future.”

Many described the vote as historic.

“I can’t think of any project that would come before you that would have more of a significant impact,” said Jim Cook, executive director of the Lowell Plan.

In recent years, a number of facility issues at Lowell High School have generated headlines. Notably, gas leaks prompted evacuations of the school last school year and teachers and students have reported persistent heating issues the past two winters. City and school officials say years of deferred maintenance have taken a toll on both Lowell High School and other school buildings.

The new and renovated school will include a new gym, five-story Freshman Academy building, a quad, rooftop garden, new footbridges and redone entrance, according to plans presented earlier this year.

Last month, the MSBA agreed to pay $210 million toward the project cost, contingent on the city obtaining full ownership and exclusive use of the site. This sum could go up by as much as $6 million if the MSBA agrees to cover eligible owner’s or construction contingency expenditures.

As it stands the city is on the hook for about $133.4 million.

Following the vote, the loan order was sent to the City Clerk’s Office for 20 days for objections. After this, City Manager Eileen Donoghue can enter into an agreement to move forward with the loan order.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins