School Committee holds on to Coffin, delays interim super decision

At its Oct. 5 meeting, the School Committee voted 3-2 to keep the old Coffin School property rather than return it to the town for possible use as housing. The committee also delayed a decision on a new interim superintendent.

Chair Sarah Fox said it would be “grossly irresponsible” for the district to give up the three-acre Coffin School property, especially given a recent state mandate that Marblehead create zoning rules that would allow nearly 900 new housing units in town.

The Coffin School property will not be turned over to the town for housing. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

“If we’re changing our bylaws at the town level to allow up to 870 new units, how in that same breath are we looking to diminish our infrastructure to a point where we will not be able to educate those people?” she asked.

The law states that MBTA communities like Marblehead need to zone for denser housing but does not mandate that that housing actually be built. The new zoning needs to be approved at Town Meeting in May, or the town could face financial penalties from the state.

Committee member Jenn Schaeffner, who also sits on the Affordable Housing Committee, said the town has already given up several school properties.

“We’ve given up Roads and Story and other properties over time, and we’re a small town,” she said. “You don’t get that back. We don’t know what the future needs of our district are.”

She continued, “We’ve seen declining enrollment, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have increasing enrollment. It would seem to me that it would be irresponsible for the committee to give up our last set of property.”

Select Board Chair Erin Noonan, who also leads the Housing Production Plan Implementation Committee, has been advocating for the Coffin School to be used as mixed housing, which would include market-rate and affordable units. In recent weeks she has encouraged the School Committee to turn over the Coffin.

At a recent meeting Noonan said Marblehead “doesn’t need three elementary schools” but does need more housing, especially for seniors and young families. She pointed out that the median home value in town is now $1.1 million, making it difficult for seniors and young families to afford to live in town.

The school district has discussed demolishing the Coffin School building and has looked into the cost and how to fund it. 

The demolition would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta said the only way to fund that is to repurpose remaining funds from the Brown School project. That money, while already approved, was never borrowed and would need a new Town Meeting vote this May to be used for a demolition.

Noonan told the Current that she doesn’t believe taxpayers should have to foot the bill for the demolition.

Committee members Meagan Taylor and Brian Ota voted against holding on to the Coffin property.

“I find it also irresponsible for us to maintain the cost [to maintain the building] and the liability with zero plan for any use for it,” Taylor said.

She asked that the School Committee’s facilities subgroup be charged with evaluating how to deal with the property.

Interim interrupted

Interim superintendent candidates Jannell Pearson-Campbell (left) and Theresa McGuinness COURTESY PHOTOS

The School Committee delayed a vote on a new interim superintendent until Oct. 11, after members said they had difficulty reaching references for the candidates. 

Former Village School Principal Theresa McGuinness and Jannell Pearson-Campbell are vying for the position. They both sat for interviews with the School Committee Oct. 2, answering questions about strategies to improve MCAS scores, inclusion, budgeting and more.

Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta COURTESY PHOTO

$20,000 pay increase

Also at the meeting, the School Committee approved an additional $20,000 to Cresta’s salary of $157,000 (and an extra five vacation days) for her role of acting superintendent from July 1 through December. If an interim superintendent is hired before the end of the year, Cresta will assist with the transition. 

That brings the known total of the cost to remove the former superintendent to above $200,000 (including Buckey’s separation agreement and lawyers’ fees). That does not include costs to hire a new superintendent.

Cresta also received a raise to $170,583 for the period of July 1, 2024-June 30, 2025.

METCO outreach

Meagan Taylor recommended that the School Committee engage more with METCO, the program that brings students from Boston to Marblehead schools.  The committee discussed several opportunities, including holding a listening session with METCO parents in the city.

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Editor Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter.

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