Peabody mayor talks school improvements as reelection looms

PEABODY — As Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt Jr. gears up to run for his seventh term as the city’s chief executive, he is focused on one part of his job in particular — that of School Committee chairman.

In a sit-down interview with The Item last week, Bettencourt spoke at length about the future of the city’s schools and his vision for the 10 buildings that comprise the Peabody Public Schools system.

One of his biggest concerns, he said, was the state of Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, a building the city has repeatedly sought state funding for, only to be turned down. Bettencourt said it was his view that a high school should serve as a flagship building for the community, and with PVMHS in its current state, it doesn’t function as it should.

“We are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars every year into that building … just to keep (it) going,” Bettencourt said, adding that he believes the building is energy inefficient. “The technology, the science labs, they’re old and outdated. Thankfully we have tremendous teaching and course offerings in that building … but it has fallen behind.”

Bettencourt said in an ideal world, the high school would serve as more than an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. learning environment, providing opportunities for additional programming, including in the performing arts and sports.

“It really needs to be a central part of any city,” he said.

While Bettencourt said he was hopeful the high school would gain admission into the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s core repair program this year, he said the city would be forced to continue to make smaller-scale repairs to the school should they not receive funding from the state.

The Center Elementary School, which had been included in prior MSBA applications, was omitted from the statement of interest submitted by the city this year. The omission came as a result of the city’s decision to move forward with submitting the high school, and a belief from city officials that the authority would likely only take on one major project in a community at a time.

The elementary school, still in need of major repairs, will be closed for the entirety of the 2024-25 school year, a decision Bettencourt said was difficult to make, but one he felt was necessary for extending the life cycle of the building. The City Council has already approved a request by Bettencourt to spend more than $300,000 to replace tile flooring in the school building, and Bettencourt said he anticipated asking for additional funds come the fall for the replacement of the school’s HVAC system.

“In order to significantly impact that school, make it better for our teachers and our students and make it a better environment, we have to do work this summer, and then close it down the following school year, to really make an impact,” Bettencourt said. “It’s hard to go to a neighborhood community school, like the Center School is, and deliver that news.”

Bettencourt also reiterated his belief in the neighborhood elementary school model, despite recent decisions by other communities statewide to consolidate their early learning into one or two buildings.

“I feel like you get to know your neighbors, you get to know your classmates, you get to build relationships within your neighborhoods, in your school district, in a warm, comforting environment, in those younger years … and you’re able to have that environment before you go to the bigger school,” he said.

Earlier this year, Bettencourt withdrew a proposed bond request to demolish the Kiley School building, a request he admitted was likely premature. That school, which has been shuttered since 2005, will remain part of the school system in some capacity, Bettencourt confirmed, though no firm plans for the future of the building are in place.

But, Bettencourt confirmed that he believed the building should be demolished, citing the high cost of rehabbing the building as opposed to building something brand new in its place. The city has no intention of selling the property, and Bettencourt said he anticipates more serious discussion about its future beginning this fall.

“We can fit that building to needs we have not only for our school system but for our city in general,” he said.

The other major concern bearing down on the city, beyond the school infrastructure upgrades, is the looming closure of the Rousselot plant on Allens Lane later this year.

The city’s largest employer, Rousselot owns 350 acres of land, including roughly half of Peabody’s municipal golf course.

While the full impact of the closure will likely not be known until years after Rousselot shuts its doors, Bettencourt said the city is already planning for life without one of its key cogs, evidenced in part by the recent decision to dramatically increase water and sewer rates for the coming fiscal year.

Bettencourt said one of his chief concerns regarding the closure is the future of the land owned by the company.

“We expect to have real serious discussions … on what they’re going to be doing with the property,” he said. “Their location … next to our middle school, next to our police station, in a major part of our city and a busy part of our city with traffic and residential so close. That’s going to be a key area of focus for myself and this community for years to come.”

When asked why he is seeking reelection to a seventh term, Bettencourt took a long pause.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by drawings created by his four children — one of whom just graduated from Peabody Veterans Memorial High School — the city’s longtime mayor said his devotion to the community remains as strong as ever.

“I’ve always had a very deep attachment to the city,” he said. “Peabody is very much a part of me. And I’m really excited and feel like we’ve made some real improvements in the city. And I’m looking forward to continuing that work, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

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