Green school. Red light?

At-large City Councilor John Connolly sets his sights on creating multi-million-dollar environmental academy.
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 6, 2010

1001_greenschool_main

Little girls and boys frolic on swing sets whittled from recycled beech wood. Teenagers harvest organic rutabagas and stew them with locally farmed carrots in Earth-friendly kitchens. Classmates teach one another about conscious living. Folks develop new technologies to help make the landscape lovelier. Solar panels abound.

That's not just an eco-Rockwellian image of an archetypal Jamaica Plain household. It's a description of the K-12 environmental sciences academy that At-Large City Councilor John Connolly is determined to build in Boston. There's currently a groundswell of nationwide support for such efforts, fueled by federal and state funds tagged for sustainable development. And while the Hub already has a sparkling green reputation — from its famously progressive environmental leadership at City Hall and Emerald Necklace parks system to its more symbolic Irish heritage and pro-hoops team — Connolly's institute would help stretch this verdant kingdom beyond the low-emission buildings that tower over Back Bay.

As the top vote getter in this past November's at-large election, Connolly is in pole position to advance his green-school agenda, which he first proposed in his freshman term two years ago. The West Roxbury councilor now chairs the committees on Environment and Health and Education, and this particular project gives him a vehicle with which he can take action on those tandem passions. But the task of designing, funding, and operating one of the world's most dynamic environmental learning incubators poses a titanic challenge — particularly with Boston facing painful budget cuts across the board, and with pet projects coming under intense scrutiny. But Connolly sees a forest through the line items, and will soon host the first of four 2010 hearings designed to draft specifics for his otherwise inchoate plan. The question is whether he can rally adequate support for a green dream that could cost the city as much as $100 million.

Building a coalition
Due to fluctuating material costs and many other variants, there's no telling the actual price tag of Connolly's proposal. One similar development, the private Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, DC, ran a $28 million infrastructural tab retrofitting one building and adding a new structure for a combined 72,500 square feet that serves 350 students (including Sasha and Malia Obama). Connolly's K-12 planned project is at least three times that size in physical scope, and has a multifaceted mission that would necessitate further funding for targeted curriculum planning, career training, and outreach programs.

"There are a few goals here," says Connolly, who ideally wants the green academy built from scratch on the site of the old Boston State Hospital in Mattapan. "One is to produce young citizens who are dedicated to sustainable living, and who can go out and get jobs in the green economy, whether they're installing solar panels or working on bio-fuel technology as a chemist. Another is for kids from other Boston public schools to be able to use the facility, and for all segments of the population to be able to come there for green trade skills."

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