Expanded to include comment from those advocating for advocating for the Decas School petition article

Select Board now in favor of reworked Decas School community center plan

Oct 19, 2021

In an about-face on Tuesday night, the Select Board threw its support behind a proposal to convert the soon-to-be-vacant John W. Decas Elementary School into a community center.

The original proposal, crafted by a group of citizens and put on the Oct. 25 Town Meeting warrant through a “citizens' petition,” was initially opposed by four of the five Select Board members — partly because of the intent of the petition and partly because officials believed some parts of the lengthy petition were unworkable and potentially illegal.

However, petition group leaders Leslie Edwards Davis and John Dallmeyer met with Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside and Town Administrator Derek Sullivan on Tuesday, Oct. 19, and spent several hours crafting a motion to be made on the Town Meeting floor. 

If approved, the motion would override the text of the initial citizens’ petition and fix what struck officials as potential legal issues. That evening, the full board voted to support the revised version.

In contrast to the text of the citizens’ petition, under the motion, the town would maintain legal control of the Decas School building when it is vacated in January. (Wareham Elementary School on Minot Avenue is set to be open and ready for students after the winter break.)

The motion gives a number of potential uses for the building: a senior center, municipal meeting space, adult education, public library, training and enrichment programs, veterans services, recreation, youth programming, co-working space, health and wellness services, daycare, sports or other uses to benefit the community.

The revised motion still creates a Decas School Steering Committee, but all members would be appointed by the Select Board. Of the seven members, three would be appointed from those nominated by the petitioners. The remaining four would be chosen from the nominations made by four committees, respectively: the Council on Aging board, Capital Planning Committee, Community Preservation Committee, and the Select Board. In addition, the Town Administrator, Council on Aging Director and a Select Board member would attend the committee’s meetings as non-voting members.

The committee is tasked with providing a recommendation to Town Meeting about the use of the building “for and by the residents of Wareham and other members of the public” by fall 2022.

During an Oct. 13 gathering, the group of individuals behind the petition article explained that the potential in the Decas School is immediately apparent to anyone who walks through the space.

“Every single person who takes that tour — their eyes get so big because they can’t believe the resource we have in that building,” Davis said. 

Davis said the group has been working on the idea since July and looked to other towns that have turned old buildings into community centers. 

“It’s an amenity in a town that has few amenities — and it’s an affordable, reachable amenity that we can actually make happen,” she said.

As in the original petition, the town would spend $15,000 for a study of the “costs and requirements of transforming the John William Decas Elementary School into a center to benefit the community.” 

Davis said that study, a “rigorous look at the building,” would drive the committee’s recommendation to Town Meeting.

Already, the group of petitioners working on the project have secured letters of support from the Family Pantry at Damien’s Place and South Shore Community Action Council, backing the community center idea and expressing a desire to rent space at the Decas School, should the opportunity arise.

In addition, the Wareham Council on Aging and Jowaun Gamble of Community Youth Empowerment support the community center idea. 

“A well-run community center serves as a thriving hub of activity for youth, families, senior citizens, civic organizations, parks and recreation departments, and more,” Gamble said in a statement. “CYE would be able to run youth programs through the center and utilize this space for mentorship, tutorships, etcetera.”

Whiteside said that she, along with Sullivan, Town Moderator Claire Smith, and Town Counsel Richard Bowen, would take a closer look into the motion later this week.

A Southeast Regional Planning and Economic and Development District study had recommended the Decas School be redeveloped into “high-intensity lab/flex use” that could generate tax revenue for the town. Flex space is space that isn’t limited to simply manufacturing or office use, but can also be used for scientific purposes such as research and development.

Davis had argued that the potential tax revenue from redeveloping the property wouldn’t outweigh the benefits of establishing a multi-generational community center at the site.  

Select Board member Alan Slavin said that the reuse study was focused purely on economic benefit, rather than value to the community — something he wished had been considered since the beginning. 

“Sometimes, money is not the most important thing,” Slavin said. “The community has really gone through a lot of stuff in the last year and a half, and this is a piece where maybe we can heal a lot of problems and a lot of issues and get together. We need to start moving forward, because continuing the way we’ve been going is not going to help anybody.”

Select Board member Jim Munise, who signed the original petition, said the motion was a “good compromise” that put the appointing authority where it should be.

The activists who’ve been working on the idea have proposed a “balanced budget” for operating the community center, which includes expenses such as utilities and a salary for a community center operation manager and income such as rent for space, and grants and fundraising.

Still, the Finance Committee expressed concerns about funding and voted against recommending the initial citizens’ petition article. It is unclear whether or not the committee would recommend the revised motion.

Advocates for the community center have set up a site to promote their idea: www.DecasForWareham.com. The matter will be up for a vote at the Oct. 25 Town Meeting.

This story has been updated to include comments from some of the people advocating for the Decas School community center petition article. Reporter Madison Czopek contributed to this story.