Select Board puts Decas School reuse outreach on hold ‘til after Town Meeting

Jul 13, 2022

The Select Board voted on July 12 to delay issuing any requests for proposals for the use of the former Decas School until after the October Town Meeting — a move community center advocates say decreases the center’s chance for success as key tenants may look elsewhere.

More than a dozen community center advocates and seniors attended the meeting with the hope of speaking in favor of the project, which would convert the now-empty elementary school into a center housing the Council on Aging along with other community and non-profit uses, like the Head Start preschool. Board chair Judith Whiteside asked one of them — Joseph Salerno — to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but later she said that as public comment was not listed on the agenda, no one from the public would be allowed to speak. She also instructed the crowd not to talk or text on their phones.

She said she put the item on the agenda following multiple requests made to Town Administrator Derek Sullivan. 

“Any entertaining of [requests for proposals] should come before this board and not the town administrator,” Whiteside said. Officials have previously said that the building is under the sole control of the town administrator.

The Decas School Steering Committee will present its final report about the feasibility of a community center or other uses of the school at the fall Town Meeting, so, Whiteside said the town should wait until then to take further action.

Whiteside and board members Alan Slavin, Ron Besse and Jared Chadwick voted unanimously to wait until after the Town Meeting. Member Tricia Wurts was not present.

Diane Kenney, the chair of the steering committee, said that issuing requests for proposals form potential tenants is part of the group’s work to evaluate whether a community center is financially possible for the town. She noted that the town would have no obligation to act on any proposals.

“We’re not writing contracts,” Kenney said. “It would give us hard numbers to use at Town Meeting.”

Community center advocate Leslie Edwards Davis said that delaying action costs money, as the town is paying for utilities and upkeep on an empty building.

“We have people who want to pay to cover those costs,” Davis said.

Kenney said that the South Shore Community Access Council, an interested tenant which operates Head Start and other related services, has expressed interest in Decas but has recently been looking at locations in Bourne. Head Start is free, family-focused early childhood care and education. Families enrolled also receive access to other services, and the organization has said it could expand its offerings if located in Decas.

The group currently rents space in the old Oak Grove School and future Cape Verdean Cultural Center, but they’re looking to move and expand.  

“That would mean that the people who need them the most would have to travel,” Kenney said, saying that travel is an issue for many low-income families. 

“I think people are so far separated from people that are in a position that they need help that they’re unaware what their actions could mean to these people,” Kenney said. “I don’t think people are specifically trying to hurt people that need the help, but they are.”

Jared Frederickson, another advocate and former Steering Committee member, echoed that concern. 

“There are a lot of organizations that are looking to come to Wareham,” Frederickson said. 

The longer this takes, the more of them will look elsewhere, he said.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Kenney said.

The Council on Aging board of directors wrote a letter to the Select Board and Town Administrator last week saying that despite some recent upgrades, the MultiService Center is still unsafe for seniors. Not all of the rooms are handicap friendly, and seniors depend on the elevator to go between rooms. But that elevator broke down recently and features an expired inspection certificate, the board said.

The board urged the town to move the Council on Aging into the Decas School, as voters asked at the Spring Town Meeting through a petition article. 

“The current building [...] is hindering the COA’s ability to thrive, grow and meet the needs of the community at large,” the letter read.

The Decas School Steering Committee has issued a survey asking for community input about their interest in a community center, what services they’d like to see offered and various demographic information. Click here.