North Bennet Street School and Eliot Parents Group Are the Only Two Bidders for North and Richmond Street Buildings

Old Boston Printing Plant.

Only two bids were received by the City of Boston for the North and Richmond Street buildings up for sale in the North End, according to multiple sources close to the situation. A property swap plus cash proposal was submitted by the North Bennet Street School and a “public interest” bid by the Eliot K-8 School Family Council that has been urging Boston Public Schools to expand its downtown school.

The Eliot parents’ bid was largely symbolic, so this is very good news for the North Bennet Street School as the only bidder likely to meet the RFP requirements.  Importantly, it would also allow the City to use NBSS existing properties to expand the overcrowded Eliot School in phases as the NBSS refurbishes the vacant North and Richmond Street buildings.

The parents group might still question the timeline and long-term capacity needed for the Eliot School, but the outcome for a short-term solution appears to be at hand for for an expansion of the K-8 to at least two full class strands.

After a month long marketing period and a property tour that garnered two dozen developers, it does not appear that any housing developers were interested in the properties. Or perhaps, developers did not want to compete in an RFP process that gave preference to a public purpose, such as the Eliot expansion.

Earlier in the day on the bid deadline, the Eliot School Family Council issued a press release regarding its “public benefit” bid to move the K-8 public school currently on Charter St. to the properties at 150 North Street and 130-140 Richmond Street.

The North Bennet Street School also submitted its property swap plus cash bid by the February 16, 2012 first round deadline. The historic North End based trade school has been looking to expand its programs for several years.

Symbolically bidding $704 for the properties assessed at $11.3 million, the parents’ bid includes $1 for each potential student that could attend an expanded Eliot School. In an interview and press release, Israel Ruiz, co-chair of the parents group, said the parents want to reach out to the Boston neighborhoods and city at-large to “make their case.”

“Due to the population boom taking place in the downtown neighborhoods of Boston, there is a substantial community need for our city to expand access to high quality public education.” said Israel Ruiz, ESFC Co-Chair. “We strongly believe that expanding access to the Eliot School offers a proven academic solution and that the City of Boston and Boston Public Schools should address this critical need before any decision is made on the sale of these large North End properties.”

The parents are also supporting a bid, including a property swap, by the North Bennet Street School, contingent on the existing NBSS buildings being used to expand the Eliot School. NBSS is a private trade school with a long history in the North End that is also looking for more space for its programs. The Eliot and NBSS buildings are around the block from each other in the North End.

“We remain open to exploring any and all solutions with the City of Boston, the Boston Public Schools and the North Bennet Street School, as long as the Eliot School’s untenable space issues are resolved in a way that enables our school to secure an adequate and effective learning environment for our children,” said Israel Ruiz, Co-Chair of the Eliot School K-8 Family Council.

NBSS President, Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, recently met with the parents and laid out a rough timeline of how, if his bid is successful, the trade school operations would move in phases to North St. With each phase, more space would become available for the Eliot classes. Through an agreement with NBSS, the Eliot School is using some classrooms there for the current school year to temporarily alleviate space issues at the public K-8 school.

The parents’ are looking for three full “strands” of K-8 classes at the Eliot, with capacity to serve over 700 students. The current student population of the Eliot School is 320 students, up from just 175 in 2008 before a “second strand” of classes was added to meet demand. The added strand is about to reach 3rd grade this September and currently does not have space to grow. Even without the third strand, the existing programs are expected to require seats for over 400 students by 2017.

“I’ve seen the Eliot School population almost double in size since my children entered in 2008, yet the physical space remains static,” said Anne Occhipinti, whose daughter is in the Eliot School’s second strand class that will enter the third grade next fall.  “I’m very concerned for my daughter that we could be facing more program cuts for next year – or worse – potential school reassignment, if the Eliot School is unable to secure more space by this September.”

Earlier this week, Eliot parent Mary Marenghi spoke at a Neighborhood Council (NEWNC) meeting in support of a petition being circulated to support the expansion plan. As of this writing, the petition has over 850 signatures. At the meeting, Councilor Jorge Mendoza, also an Eliot parent, expressed overcrowding concerns given the current state of the public K-8 school.

NEWNC has issued a letter of support, in line with the parents position as stated in the petition. The Residents’ Association (NEWRA) has not supported the petition effort, but previously wrote a letter in favor of the NBSS property swap proposal as the preferred way to expand the Eliot while also keeping the non-profit trade school in the North End.

Overseeing the bidding process by the City’s Property Management department is the Boston Finance Commission. No bids are expected to be revealed publicly by the City until it designates a winner. The Commission has been active in the process leading up to the current RFP. It could support a city plan to expand the Eliot School at the North St. buildings, but otherwise wants to “maximize the City’s return.” Part of that effort could include a second round where the top three bidders get to see the other proposals with a chance to re-bid.

Recognizing their proposal will not meet all of the RFP requirements, the Eliot parents are reaching out to other Downtown Boston neighborhoods that would also be served by a larger K-8 school in the North End.  Notably, the City’s RFP includes language in support of responses with “a public purpose” benefiting city residents. The Eliot has a waiting list larger than its current student population, so a plan allowing for expansion of the public school certainly meets the standard of a community benefit.

City officials have commented in the press that the Eliot K-8 cannot be moved directly to the North St. buildings because it is too expensive for the city to renovate them.  Some parents were surprised the option of a direct move had not been more seriously considered and questioned the city’s undisclosed estimates for renovation.

In addition to more families staying in the city, much of the demand for the Eliot comes from its strong reputation as one of the best public schools in Boston. Parents credit Principal Traci Walker Griffith with turning around the school and dramatically improving test scores. As other Boston Public Schools have been closed, the demand for seats at existing schools has increased. Only the North End’s Eliot and a small public school in Chinatown are available to serve the Downtown Boston neighborhoods. The BPS lottery and busing system also allocates about half of the Eliot’s capacity to students in other parts of the city.