By Greg Phipps
---- — NEWBURYPORT — A large outpouring of public support in favor of keeping the current Bresnahan School name proved to be the deciding factor Monday in the School Committee’s 4-3 vote to retain it.
Construction of a new K-3 elementary school on the current site of the Bresnahan School is slated for completion in the fall of 2014. The present Bresnahan facility was renamed 20 years ago in honor of superintendent Francis T. Bresnahan, who died while still serving in that position in 1993.
Students from the Brown School on the south side of the city will also move into the new school upon its opening as the existing building will be closed.
Earlier this month, the School Committee had issued a call for public feedback on the matter of naming the new elementary school — and they received it. Pointing to the large show of public support, members said the choice was clear.
New superintendent Susan Viccaro, who was hired in June, made the recommendation to keep the Bresnahan name unchanged due to an “overwhelming” number of community responses.
“Because I’ve been here only six weeks, I can only base my recommendation on the data,” she said. “I’m amazed at the number of responses I’ve gotten on this issue. Sixty-two of the emails I received favored keeping the name and two were for changing it.”
Mayor Donna Holaday, who serves as chairwoman, also acknowledged that strong public support in favor of the current name made the decision clear.
“The amount of letters, emails, and phone calls I’ve received has been astounding,” she said. “I have well over 140 emails that favor keeping the name. It’s very obvious it has overwhelming community support.”
Vice-chairwoman Cheryl Sweeney said she has never seen any other issue garner as much response from residents.
“I think it’s in the best interest of the community to keep the name the same,” she said. “But no matter what we do here as a board, our collective vision is do what’s best for our children’s education.”
A large contingent of Bresnahan family members and supporters attended Monday’s meeting to urge the committee to keep the late educator’s name on the building.
Mary Anne Clancy, former mayor and daughter of Francis T. Bresnahan, talked about her father’s legacy and the criteria to consider when naming a new school after someone.
“Would you choose someone whose life was spent serving the children of Newburyport? Someone who worked in the Newburyport Public Schools for 40 years, who went up the ranks from teacher to assistant principal, to principal, assistant superintendent and then superintendent for 24 years?” she said. “(It’s) unheard of, in this day and age, for a superintendent to stay in one place that long, and isn’t that what we want?”
“I hope that Susan Viccaro stays here for the rest of her career and has the same passion for Newburyport that my father had,” Clancy added. “This is not about the past, this is about our future. I want the students of the new Bresnahan School to continue to see Francis Bresnahan’s portrait hanging in the hall when they enter the school.”
Clancy went on to point out that Sept. 19 will mark the 20th anniversary of her father’s passing.
“In recent months, my family has been thinking of ways to commemorate his life around that time,” she said. “I don’t think any of us thought that we would have to do this — defend his memory and honor,” she said. “But in some small way, if any good can come out of this very painful process, it is that all of you have learned a little more about Francis Bresnahan — what he was like as a man, an educator and a visionary for this city.”
While public sentiment appeared to be slanted heavily in favor of keeping the Bresnahan School name, the viewpoint among the School Committee was more evenly divided.
Members Audrey McCarthy, Nick deKanter, and Bruce Menin voted against Viccaro’s recommendation and each spoke in favor of what they termed “a more equitable idea” of combining the school name in order to celebrate the histories of both the Bresnahan and Brown schools. McCarthy proposed calling it the “The Bresnahan-Brown School.”
Menin talked at length about the historical contributions of George Brown, the person whom the Brown School is named after. Brown served as a school principal in Newburyport for nearly 50 years before he retirement in 1926. The Brown School first opened its doors in 1924.
“He impacted generations of people,” Menin said. “He is an important historical figure who gave 50 years of service to education in Newburyport. His name and accomplishments should be brought forward and recognized.”
Sweeney said going forward, the committee will solicit public input on ways to recognize all the figures who impacted Newburyport’s education system, such as George Brown, and to honor their memories.