The Karma of Modern Problems

by Gavin Keenan. This article was first posted in 2017, and is timely as ever.

Town Meeting time can often raise the blood pressure. When paired with the daily MOABs of POTUS 45, a defibrillator may be indicated. But here I want to speak of local affairs; to wit, small town politics and the history of governing in Ipswich as clearly as I recall it. Those of you who have been around these parts for fifty or sixty years should easily get the gist, but for others newer to Ipswich, please bear with me, as all should be made clear enough in due time.

In the sixth decade of the previous century, my brothers and I attended the long-gone St. Stanislaus Parochial School on Washington Street. It was located beneath the parish church across from the present-day car wash and Jim’s Auto. With the baby-boom in full flower, Ipswich had more kids than it knew what to do with, and the school population outpaced all available space. So while my brothers and I endured double grade classrooms overseen with drill-instructor efficiency by the formidable Sisters of St. Chretien, the public schools expanded to a total of four elementary schools – present day Winthrop and Doyon, as well as the older Burley School on Mt. Pleasant and the Shatswell School on Green Street. Following construction of a new High School on High Street, the old High School on Green Street converted to a Junior High for grades seven and eight. In spite of this expansion, many remember attending double session schedules and off-site classrooms at Boone Hall and the Memorial Building on Central Street implemented to accommodate this population explosion. Notwithstanding these classroom contortions, I don’t believe that any permanent harm was done to our developing brains.

Burley School Ipswich MA
Burley School.

After the baby-boom went on the pill, the school-age population shrunk to more reasonable levels. In the late 1970’s, the School Department was compelled to consider the once unthinkable proposition of closing the older schools and concentrating all elementary grades at Doyon and Winthrop. The concept of a Middle School was adopted and the sixth grade kids were booted over to Green Street to take the pressure off of the remaining elementary schools. Shatswell stayed in use a bit longer, but the die had been cast and closure was imminent.

I was a rookie cop then and remember that Chief Brouillette hoped to relocate the Police Department from the three dingy rooms it occupied in Town Hall, to more appropriate digs at the soon to be vacated Shatswell Building. Besides the limited space, the police station was a study in Rube Goldberg engineering. The ancient Motorola police radio often went dead, necessitating the use of a running police cruiser positioned beneath the station window, where a very long microphone cord would extend from the cruiser radio through the window and into the station affording communication between the desk Sergeant and the other cops on duty. An additional station house amenity was the cell block toilet flush handle. This was located in a closet within the Chief’s office. In order to flush the cell block toilets, someone had to barge into the Chief’s private office and pull the chain. This wasn’t a problem on nights or weekends, but was a bit of a distraction to the Chief during regular business hours.

However, the Chief’s hopes of a new station circled the drain quicker than you could pull the chain. Proposition Two and a half was now in full force and effect, and the Town commenced the agonizing process of selling the schools in order to put a few bucks back into the tax-starved treasury. Both Burly and Shatswell eventually became condos (it took a couple of tries at Burley, after the original contractor went bust) and the P.D. stayed put. We did get a new floor though.

George Howe was Town Manager and wisely concluded that the Town Hall was both underutilized and inefficient. Municipal offices, the P.D. and the District Court were all jammed into the first floor. The upstairs remained mostly vacant, primarily housing gym equipment for the cops and piles of pigeon droppings.

The old Municipal Light Building next door at 25 Elm Street presented an intriguing solution. Built in the 1930s by the W.P.A. for the Electric Light Department, it now housed various offices orphaned from Town Hall. To bring municipal government functions under one roof and end the practice of cops dragging an obnoxious, intoxicated prisoner through Town Hall and disturbing the weighty deliberations of Selectmen and Finance Committee meetings, Mr. Howe conceived the idea of remodeling the upstairs for those wayward departments and converting 25 Elm Street to a police station. It was a win-win all around. Municipal operations were consolidated and the Police Department gained a much-needed, modernized home with its own bathroom. The cell block was no longer within spitting range of the desk officer and the Chief was ensconced in a corner office insulated from any toilet duties.

The Firefighters were envious of course. No new bathroom for them. They remained stuck in the same ancient station built is 1908. How unfair. What about those plans drawn up in the 1960s for a combined police-fire station? Didn’t the Town Fathers give a hoot that the heavy fire trucks were falling through an apparatus floor built for horse-drawn wagons? How many more times could the floor be braced and shored against collapse?

The Town Fathers seriously considered these concerns and determined:

  1. The Firefighters were a bunch of cry-baby complainers, and
  2. Wouldn’t the Fire Department function better as an all-volunteer force?

The problem with the first conclusion was that the firefighters were correct in voicing their concerns, and just about everyone knew it. The firehouse was decrepit and grossly outdated by 1980 standards. Wedged between Manning Street and the entrance to the Winthrop School, the old brick building was now better suited as an historical artifact than a working firehouse.

Item two crashed against the reality that they just weren’t making volunteers like they used to. Dedicated and self-sacrificing then as now; climbing out of bed at 2 a.m. on a cold winter night or leaving their family function whenever the alarm sounded, the volunteers availability was more limited in this modern world. Many worked out of town during the day and were unavailable to respond to the increasing calls for medical aids and the like.

The Town Fathers, caught on the horns of a dilemma, decided on a split decision. They reasoned that depending solely on a call force was a dicey proposition not likely to enhance fire safety. So, better to keep the career force up and running, even in an old, outdated firehouse. Another vocal faction within the seat of government maintained their hostility toward the Jakes, viewing them as a bunch of renegade employees in desperate need of strong, consistent leadership. Naturally, the Firefighters took umbrage to this characterization and an opera of mutual sniping became the order of the day that lives with us still.

On the academic side of the fiscal house, larger fish were beginning to sizzle in the pan. The School Department concluded that Winthrop was bursting at the seams with students. Even the addition of “temporary” annex classrooms – modular trailers located behind the school, did not provide sufficient space for an optimal learning environment. The School Department sought and received the Towns’ blessing to expand the existing school by means of a modest addition extending toward Mineral Street. This solution would address the bubble of echo-boomers moving through the system at this stage, but what else was to come? Trouble at the High School, that’s what.

For many years, some folks had suggested Ipswich needed a new High School. The old one was a cinder-block structure of three wings connected to a central building and gymnasium. It had served the community through well over thirty years of neglect and poor maintenance and was said to be worn out and beyond repair. Past efforts to replace it had been met with a frown from the taxpayers, but the situation was reaching a crisis point in the 1990s, as it appeared the school was sinking into the spongy farmland it had been built upon. A committee was formed to look into things and suggest solutions. In addition to the sinking High School, the committee declared the Middle School building on Green Street unsustainable as an educational facility. They cited space restrictions, outdated utilities, lack of storage space, limited parking and a history of poor maintenance and the high cost of fixing things as evidence to support their position.

Following much study and examination, the committee determined that a combined Middle-High School would provide Ipswich children with a first class, Twenty-First Century education. It could even have a Performing Arts Center that would both generate some income and bring a bit of culture to the people.

This was not without controversy as some folks cast a gimlet eye at what they viewed to be an expensive and overly ambitious undertaking. Yet the School Department was more adept than the skeptics at getting things done. They allied parents, administrators, faculty and some friendly voices on the Finance Committee to push the project ahead. They brought their best game too; telephone campaigns, informational “learning” sessions, and assurances to the citizenry that the costs weren’t all that expensive as the Commonwealth would pay almost half. Some skeptics pointed out that the Commonwealth’s share was actually money coming out of their other pocket. Others wondered if such a large public expenditure would freeze out other worthy public investments, like a new firehouse, for instance. These naysayer observations were roundly dismissed as the misguided words of cranky, anti-tax cheapskates, or even worse; mean-spirited, small-minded reactionaries.

But the question remained of what to do with the old Middle School and adjacent shop building. Innovative thinking suggested that the old school, seemingly inadequate and unsuitable for school children, would be ideal for Town Hall employees. Structurally sound, a million or so would fix what needed fixing and the building would be like new again. The District Court could remain on Elm Street to accommodate the widened jurisdiction including Hamilton, Wenham and Topsfield.

The proposal passed Town Meeting handily and rolled over the opposition at the ballot box. By Y2K, the new school stood on the same squishy ground as the old school. The Middle School was gutted and refitted for municipal use and the shop building eventually became much-needed elderly housing. What was once considered old and obsolete transitioned to shiny and new, and has been going strong ever since.

In line with these public investments, the Library sought and received the blessing of the voters for a million dollar restoration and addition to its aged facility. But hey, just about everyone loves the Library and the building was certainly showing its age with leaky roofs, dingy windows and poor ventilation. And when the job was done, no one could argue with the results.

Public Safety, especially on the fire side, struggled along as usual. The Town Fathers commenced what would become a perpetual search for that strong, decisive leader who would right the ship of Ipswich’s Bravest. Many were called, and many were chosen, each bringing their unique perspective and talents to the fore. One urged the Town to invest in a formidable Quint Engine-Ladder Truck to replace the worn out apparatus that had been in use for many years. The Quint was bold, it was bright and it was big. Too big, it was belatedly learned, to fit onto the apparatus floor at Central Fire Headquarters. This was cause for a great deal of teeth gnashing and finger-pointing. More money was sought to construct a steel addition large enough to house the new Truck One. Awaiting construction of its new home, the newly minted General Sutton braved the elements parked on Manning Street, much to the chagrin of some taxpayers, and the delight of passing school children.

Under the wise leadership of Public Safety Director Charlie Surpitski, a civilian staffed, combined police – fire dispatch center was ensconced within the ever-shrinking confines of the police station. The stated purpose was to better coordinate and professionalize public safety communications and free a police officer from desk duty to the street patrol force. A collateral benefit was the public would no longer have to endure the short-tempered responses of a grumpy desk sergeant (guilty as charged, your honor) when calling for assistance from the police.

In January of 2001, a local family was devastated by a terrible fire that shook the community and once again raised the issue of fire safety. In spite of the valiant efforts of firefighters and police, three family members were lost in the tragedy that was noted for the initial short-staffed response. Questions were raised about manpower levels and the Board of Selectmen formed committees to examine the matter. These efforts led to a move to both increase staffing of the Fire Department sufficient to man the Linebrook Fire Station and purchase additional firefighting apparatus. Appearing on the Town Meeting Warrant as separate articles, supporters passed both only to see the manpower increase defeated at the ballot.

The Public Safety Facilities Committee kept the faith and continued to advocate for a new firehouse year after year and into the present decade. This gained some urgency when the firehouse was ordered evacuated by the Building Inspector following the partial disintegration of an exterior wall. No one was injured by the falling bricks and EBSCO was good enough to temporarily house the firefighters until repairs could be made and the building reoccupied.

During my time on that committee, the idea of a combined public safety facility seemed the only feasible way forward. Two things were made apparent to me as well. First, I was told by a member of the Finance Committee that the purchase of private land for a new public safety building was a non-starter. It was too expensive and town finances were in terrible shape. Second, when the then-Fire Chief suggested expanding the existing firehouse by taking a small bit of school property, the School Committee representative made it very clear why this could never happen.

Later iterations of the committee explored alternate locations for the facility, focusing their attention on the land between the existing police station and South Main Street. This proved controversial and was met with stiff resistance from the neighbors as well as others. And several years ago, a request for $100,000 to fund an engineering study died at Town Meeting.

The old Town Hall, built in 1833, housed the District Court for a few more years until the Selectmen grew tired of continually fighting the State House to keep it open. In 2004, one of the oldest District Courts in the Commonwealth adjourned for the final time and moved lock, stock and gavel to the Newburyport Courthouse. The Town vowed to see the historic building re-purposed and preserved and expressly not become condominiums. It was sold to a developer with the grand idea of converting it to a public arts center and movie theater. Interest was stronger than investment however, and nothing much happened. Then the Great Recession arrived and the building slid into a period of neglect and disrepair. Following a suit brought by the Town, the building was obtained by a developer and is now in the process of becoming, you guessed it,. condos.

So what you may ask, is the purpose of this long-winded screed? Well, we now face another long debate regarding school buildings, public safety facilities and their costs. The arguments and preferences voiced today echo from a not too distant past. Proving that in Ipswich, not much is really new, but some things are very old indeed.


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