The City Council is keeping the pressure on the Sarno administration over the controversial decision to move the School Department to the old federal courthouse building on Main Street, rather then send out a request for bids to let other potential landlords compete for the lease.
Last night, the Council voted, 7-to-2, to issue a request for proposals for a new home for the School Department, which is due to leave its current home on State Street. (President Bill Foley and Kateri Walsh, who have been perhaps Mayor Domenic Sarno’s strongest backers on the Council, cast the two “no” votes.) This is the third time the Council has asked that an RFP be issued. Earlier this year, however, the Springfield Finance Control Board voted to skip that process and instead sign a lease with MassDevelopment, which will buy the old courthouse from the feds.
That 10-year lease will cost the city $10.86 per square foot, plus an additional $2.8 million for upgrades to the building, which has been largely vacant since the federal court and other offices moved to the new courthouse on State Street. City Councilor Tim Rooke, who’s leading the charge for an RFP, calculates that, once the renovation money is factored in, the cost of the Main Street lease tops $20 per square foot—a deal he says he’s confident other downtown property owners could beat.
The move to Main Street has its share of high-profile supporters, including U.S. Rep. Richie Neal (who was instrumental in getting the funds for the new courthouse), Patrick administration and state legislators Ben Swan, Cheryl Coakley-Rivera and Stephen Buoniconti. Backers say moving the roughly 150 School Department employees to Main Street will add some much-needed foot traffic to downtown and also prevent the old building—which occupies a prime piece of downtown real estate—from sitting vacant. The administration also announced that Baystate Health will also rent some office space in the building.
"Moving the School Department to this location will prevent this building from having its lights go out and prevent it from becoming dark," Sarno said in a statement to the Advocate in August. "The combination of Baystate jobs and school department employees will stimulate the downtown economy and create additional economic development."
Rooke told the Advocate that he plans to challenge Sarno and Gov. Deval Patrick to a public debate about the decision not to seek competitive bids for the public lease.
Meanwhile, the School Committee is also pressing the issue. Supporters of an RFP tried to put the item to a vote at their last meeting, Rooke noted, but because they missed the deadline to get it on that evening’s agenda, they needed to get a vote from the rest of the Committee to suspend the rules. In such cases, a single member can object, causing the item to be tabled—which Sarno, as Chairman of the School Committee, did. The question was then sent to the Buildings and Maintenance Subcommittee, whose chairman, Chris Collins supports seeking bids for the lease.
Rooke has also asked the state Inspector General to look into the matter. He said he’s still awaiting a response.