Select Board chair to School Committee: Honor committments re: Coffin School

Dear members of the School Committee,

I am writing to address a few concerning statements made during your last meeting and in conversation with Chair Sarah Fox regarding the former Coffin School. I would like to share information about the town’s potential uses for the property, correct misinformation that has been shared and remind you of the commitment and representations made by school officials and volunteers on behalf of the School Department in securing the funding for the construction of the Brown elementary school.

Select Board Chair Erin Noonan

Town needs and potential future use

As you may be aware, the town has developed a strategic Housing Production Plan to address the lack of diverse housing options in town as well as to increase our affordable housing units.  The Select Board created the Housing Production Plan Implementation Committee to undertake the work of implementing the strategies and action items laid out in the HPP. Former superintendent John Buckey was a member of the HPPIC up until his departure. Since the schools have been decommissioned, the Coffin and Eveleth properties are two locations identified by the HPP as possible sites for development of diverse housing options to meet the needs of Marblehead’s rapidly aging population.

Once the Brown School opened, town government, including former School Committee members, and residents expected that the School Department would shortly thereafter follow the required process for transfer of the Coffin property by returning it to the town as it no longer serves any educational purpose. This is the same process that was undertaken in a timely fashion after the closure of the Gerry School.

The transfer of Coffin was put on hold after the Abbot Library trustees expressed interest in using the building for transitional space during the library renovations; however, the Coffin property was unable to be used as a transitional space, and the building is currently unused by the School Department. 

As we know, the building on the Coffin site has only deteriorated and is depreciating in value the longer it remains unaddressed. Buckey, in his role as a member of the HPPIC, was aware that the most efficient process would be for the School Committee to formally vote on the matter early this fall so that the town planner could put out requests for proposals from developers for potential future use of the site. He reported to the HPPIC that the School Committee would take the matter up either at its summer retreat or shortly thereafter.

The timeframe was deliberate so that proposals for future use could be received, go through a public review/engagement process and ultimately be considered by voters for their determination of the best town use of the property at the 2024 Town Meeting.

In response to a recent email request for an update on the plans, Chair Sarah Fox responded that it would “be an agenda item on the facilities subcommittee and School Committee this year.” Just days later, the idea of the School Committee itself taking on the demolition of the building was discussed at your Sept. 21 meeting. 

Use of taxpayer money to demolish the building is financially irresponsible 

The School Committee voted to keep the Coffin School property and not turn it back to the town for housing. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

Along with many others, I was surprised to learn that the School Committee had obtained an appraisal for demolition costs without any conversation with other town officials. Demolition cost is expected by town officials to be at least $750,000 and likely as much as $1 million based on informal estimates by industry experts. Hopefully, this appraisal does not come at much cost from the School Department budget.

I want to correct a false assumption that was stated at your Sept. 21 meeting: that the property is more valuable with the building demolished. This is categorically untrue for a number of reasons.

First, substantial value to a developer lies in the pre-existing status of the structure of the main building. Once the building is demolished, it is exceedingly unlikely that a new construction would be permitted of the same scale — size and height — as it currently exists.

Second, it is less expensive for a developer to renovate an existing building than it is to construct a new building.

Third, renovating the existing school building would entitle the developer to significant state and federal historic tax credits.

Finally, the feedback from an early visioning session conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council revealed that the neighbors and other participants “have a strong desire to see the existing structure preserved and no new buildings on the site.” The building sits on three acres, and resident feedback included a strong desire to see the proposals incorporate a small park, community gardens or other type of open space for the use of town residents.

The former Coffin School sits on three acres. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

It would be financially irresponsible to expend taxpayer resources to demolish the building because it would actually depreciate the value to potential developers. Developers regularly absorb the cost of remediation/reconstruction into projects, just as was done with the Gerry School.

As in the redevelopment of the Gerry School building, the town is able to preserve the historical aspect of the building and its relationship to the neighborhood. The town would not spend any taxpayer money but rather receive dividends on the project in the form of purchase price and increased property tax revenues every year — which benefit our school system. 

School Committee representations to the town

As you know, the Bell-Coffin-Gerry Building Committee/Massachusetts School Building Authority process culminated in the $42 million debt exclusion override proposal to voters in 2019. School Committee and Building Committee members communicated across town that the new school would complete the 20-year master plan for school buildings needs and that the Brown School would be the last major school construction project in Marblehead for the next 50 years. Three of the current members of your committee were a part of the multi-year planning process and town-wide campaign that centered around the Brown School completing the school building needs of our district.

Last week during a budget planning meeting at Abbot Hall, Sarah Fox stated that she did not believe this School Committee would agree to transfer the property back to the town and remarked that the Brown School is “at capacity” already. This was quite shocking to hear on many levels.

The immediate solution to any spacing issues at the Brown School is a simple redistricting next year to balance out with the under-enrolled classrooms at the Glover School. This was always anticipated as necessary upon the opening of Brown, but not immediately palatable to families that experienced the transition from Bell/Coffin/Gerry to Brown.

Moreover, the Brown building was designed for expansion of up to eight classrooms that would support an additional 180 students.

In addition, the Village School easily absorbed an entire combined third grade during the transition period, and it is well known that the Village School has expansion potential should it be needed.We all know it is a significant challenge to fund maintenance on our existing school buildings. Given those ongoing expenses, it is unimaginable that the town would support the construction of an unnecessary new building for school purposes at the Coffin site.

As I’m sure you are aware, the cost of construction for the new elementary school building in Swampscott is $98 million. To the extent the School Department ever makes a future determination that additional capacity is needed, the most fiscally responsible and educationally sound solution will most certainly be expansion of classroom capacity in our existing school buildings.

If this School Committee is to renege on the promise to voters about our school building needs, it will imperil the goodwill and trust of taxpayers and the credibility of town government. It will come at the expense of not only any capital project from future school committees, but also those of other town departments.

It is time for the School Committee to honor its commitments to the town that voted overwhelmingly in support of the construction of the $54 million Brown School, the doors of which just opened two years ago.

Should you wish to discuss the matter further with the Select Board or learn more about the anticipated process to transfer the land, we could hold a joint meeting. Alternatively, the Select Board or the HPPIC could invite members of your committee and administrative staff to appear at a meeting. The town planner, town administrator and myself would also be happy to attend a meeting of your committee to further discuss.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.


Erin Noonan
Beverly Avenue

Erin Noonan, Select Board chair
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