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Westfield City Council ‘reluctantly’ accepts Russell School lease

Date: 6/12/2015

WESTFIELD – Westfield Schools were at the forefront for the City Council at its June 4 meeting.

The council was tasked with approving the lease on Russell Elementary School, which was previously passed by the School Committee. Though the vote passed 9-3, with one councilor absent, many of those who voted yes said they did so “reluctantly,” according to Councilor Mary O’Connell.

The 18-month lease, with options for six-month extensions, is in response to the closing of Juniper Park Elementary School, which is owned by Westfield State University.

Many of the councilors expressed disapproval for the deal that was struck between the School Department and the town of Russell but felt they were left with no choice but to approve the lease.

“We were not given the opportunity for any input into this school situation. I would be appalled if I had elementary school kids going across the line [to Russell] when I’m paying taxes here for our children. It is unfortunately beyond our control at this point,” Councilor Cindy Harris said. “The School Committee voted for this, the mayor has been involved in this and it has gotten to a point where what are we going to do? Where are these children going to go? I absolutely agree with Councilor [Brent] Bean that it is atrocious that we are at this point, but this was not given to us to decide and I’m appalled at this situation that our children have to go across the line to be educated.”

Though Councilor Dave Flaherty said it was not up to the City Council how the School Committee spent its money, other councilors said they were not comfortable with “shipping” the students to another town, according to Councilor Brent Bean II.

“In the end, we can’t take care of our own, and that’s what bothers me the most,” he said.

Despite many councilors feeling their hands were tied, Councilor James Adams said the City Council did have a chance to keep those students in Westfield.

A later item on the agenda discussed the transfer of the highly contested Ponders Hollow Road land from the Fire Department to the Parks and Recreation Department. The parcel is part of the proposed site for the new elementary school, which would be home to those students moving from Juniper Park.

The project has been stalled and has created controversy in the city.

The ordinance put in front of the council just dealt with the transfer from one department to another and did not layout any plans for the property.     

Adams said during the discussion about the Russell School lease that this ordinance could help resolve the issues brought up by the council.

“[The land transfer] could help our students stay in Westfield. We do have the ability to help the situation. We may have different thoughts on that school on Cross Street, but let’s put it on the line,” Adams said. “We have the ability to keep our kids here in town shortly it may take a few years, but we do have control of the situation to a point. If we don’t try to move the process on and we vote against it, then you are keeping the kids in Russell and not keeping these kids in town.”

The discussion was tabled until the July 1 meeting.

The City Council also unanimously voted to accept a name change for one of the city’s schools. Westfield Vocational Technical High School will now be known as Westfield Technical Academy.