By SCOTT JACKSON
City councillors did not vote on a $14 million bond request to pay for renovations to a planned special education center Tuesday after Councillor Anne Mahoney tabled the matter to seek additional information from the administration on future projects.
Councillors are expected to take up the matter again on Sept. 21, their next scheduled meeting.
Mayor Thomas Koch is seeking to borrow $14 million to renovate the office building at 178 Old Colony Ave., which was formerly the Howard Johnson’s candy factory, to convert it into a special education learning center. The council in 2019 approved a $8.5 million bond for the project, which included $6.8 million to buy the building from Eastern Nazarene College and $1.7 million for design costs and initial work.
During Tuesday’s finance committee meeting, Mahoney said a better understanding of future capital projects – including a proposed new public safety headquarters – and their costs is necessary before voting on the additional $14 million bond for the new special education center.
“Many of our families are going through what we’re all going through with COVID-19 and they’re also reassessing their priorities in their homes and they’re trying to determine what they can do and what they can’t do,” Mahoney said. “They’re expecting the same thing from our government.”
“It’s not that I’m against this particular project,” she added. “I am against having a conversation about spending $14 million when we don’t know what the priorities of our city are.”
Mahoney then asked that the vote be tabled, to which Ward 1 Councillor David McCarthy, the chairman of the finance committee, agreed. McCarthy said he would work with the administration on getting the information Mahoney requested in time for the Sept. 21 meeting.
Ward 6 Councillor William Harris, at the end of the regular council meeting that followed the finance committee meeting, referred the outcome of the committee meeting as “bad politics” and raised concern that Mahoney had been able to speak twice during the discussion before other councillors spoke at all.
“It really disappoints me sometimes when I see certain things brought up in this council…and when the right thing isn’t done when it should be properly done it’s very disappointing,” Harris said. “The only people that are really affected are the people that we represent.”
Mahoney was not the only councillor to voice concerns about the cost of the project during the finance meeting. Ward 2 Councillor Brad Croall said he was concerned about the financial outlook for the city if further shutdowns occur in the coming months because of the pandemic.
“I think this is a needed resource for the city and I think it would take us to a next level amongst our neighboring cities and towns,” Croall said. “Where I get a little concerned is we’re in a space where hopefully we’re not revisiting where we were three, four, five or six months ago, and if we do, what does that mean for the elasticity, if you will, with respect to our finances.
“I’m just concerned about the timing.”
Other councillors signaled their support for the proposal.
Ward 4 Councillor Brian Palmucci called the project a “no-brainer” because it would allow more Quincy students to receive their education in the city, rather than being taken to programs elsewhere, while saving on transportation costs.
“I think this is really just an exceptional project,” Palmucci said. “I applaud the school department and the administration, one, for exploring this some time ago, and two, for putting it forward…for me, this is a true no-brainer.”
Council President Nina Liang said she was excited for the project, based on her family’s experience with special education.
“I’m excited for this building,” she said. “Had this building been here when my younger sister was under 26 and able to go through this program, it would have been amazing instead of taking her to Braintree and now Weymouth.”
Paul Hines, the director of the city’s public buildings department, provided an overview of the planned special education during the finance committee meeting. When the project was first unveiled, officials said the building could open as soon as September 2021, but Hines said the build out could take up to 20 months. The pandemic has impacted the timeline for construction, he explained.
“It has been thrown in a loop because of the delays caused by the COVID issues,” Hines said. “We’ve had delays getting equipment…for other buildings that are under construction or under renovation because factories in various places in the world have shutdown at varying times. There is a supply line issue throughout the globe that to some degree is starting to resolve, but all of that has to be built into the construction schedule.”
If the $14 million bond were approved, Hines noted the full amount would not be borrowed all at once; instead, funds would be borrowed as needed.
The building at 178 Old Colony Ave. stands three stories tall. Classrooms would be located throughout the building along with other spaces such as therapy rooms. A food service area would be located on the second floor of building with a gymnasium on the third floor; Hines said the design of the gym would incorporate materials to stop the spread of noise elsewhere in the building.
Each classroom in the building would have its own bathroom, which Hines said added to the overall cost of the project. The city is also planning to install a high-end HVAC system in light of the pandemic.
The special education center would be designed for students on the autism spectrum, some of whom are enrolled in out-of-district programs. The city spends up to $120,000 per student on transportation and tuition to send those students out of district. City economist Eric Mason has said Quincy could save $350,000 annually, even after accounting for the costs to staff, operate and maintain the building, by no longer sending those students elsewhere.
Students from other communities might also be allowed to attend school at the learning center, provided their districts pay tuition to do so.
The building would have capacity for up to 300 students total, including preschoolers.
Erin Perkins, the school district’s acting assistant superintendent, said she expects enrollment at the learning center to grow quickly once it opens.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of children coming back once we can show them the program and show them what it looks like and show them this unbelievable state-of-the-art building,” she said. “I’ve had people call from other districts asking if we’re open yet to take students for tuitioning in.
“I think there is a lot of interest.”
Superintendent Kevin Mulvey said the new learning center, which will be named in honor of his predecessor, Richard DeCristofaro, “is just going to be transformative for these kids.”