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Council leader’s focus on schools

Choices loom on aging buildings

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2011
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Winthrop’s Town Council president-elect, Peter T. Gill, says that helping solve the town’s school building needs will be a key focus for him when he takes office next month.

“The hottest issue right now seems to be what is going to happen with the middle school and the high school,’’ said Gill. “Both are in need of significant repairs.’’ Gill unseated first-term council president Jeffrey R. Turco at the Nov. 8 town election.

Winthrop is preparing to undertake a feasibility study to evaluate options for a high school project that include building a new combined high school and middle school. Other options, according to School Committee chairwoman Mary Lou Osborne, are to renovate the high school, renovate and expand it, or build a new high school. Osborne is a member of the School Building Committee that will work with an architect on the study.

Gill said he plans to help move forward whatever project the study recommends, calling the School Building Committee “enthusiastic and determined to find the best solution in the long run.’’

He observed, though, that if the recommended plan does not involve the middle school, the town will at some point need to also address that building.

Gill, who narrowly defeated Turco, 2,453 votes to 2,337, will become the third person to serve as Winthrop’s Town Council president when he is sworn in on Jan. 3.

The position was created as part of a new charter adopted by voters in 2005 under which Winthrop, while continuing to call itself a town, adopted a city form of government.

Under the charter, the council president serves as Winthrop’s highest elected official. In addition to setting the agenda for council meetings, the president makes all appointments to town boards and committees, subject to council confirmation, and serves on the School Committee.

“It feels good,’’ Gill, 67, (inset) said of his victory in what was a spirited race. “I had a lot of support. It was a very aggressive campaign. My supporters were very hard-working. They were determined for victory and for change.’’

Gill is a familiar face in Winthrop as a 41-year member of Town Meeting and a retired local real estate broker who for the past five years has served on the Board of Appeals.

He also comes from a well-known Winthrop family. His brother Richard is a former town councilor who has also served on the School Committee and the Cemetery Commission. His late father, Henry, served as the town’s accountant in the 1950s and 1960s. One of his daughters, Lisa Howard, is the school district’s assistant superintendent, and his son Brian served as principal of Cummings Elementary School.

As council president, Gill said, he plans to pursue a different style in seeking changes than Turco did. “Jeff tended to be a little too aggressive,’’ he said.

“I believe change needs to be done with deliberation.’’

Turco, in an interview, dismissed the notion that he had moved too fast. He said one of his major initiatives - consolidating several functions that had been handled by both the school district and town government - took 20 months to accomplish, and that another - the construction of a second access road to the Gorman Fort Banks Elementary School - had been talked about for years. Provided the council approves a needed land-taking, he said, the road is expected to be built in the near future.

“Clearly, I made some decisions that were controversial and generated some level of opposition to me, but at the end of the day I don’t regret . . . the decisions made over the past two years,’’ Turco said. He added that nothing gets done without majority votes of the council and the School Committee.

He said of Gill, “I wish him well in serving the town over the next two years.’’

Gill said one of his goals is to closely monitor the implementation of the town-school consolidation “to determine how successful it is and if there are parts that need to be tweaked or changed.’’

Along with bringing a more deliberative style, Gill said, he wants to encourage more citizen involvement in decision-making while also drawing on the expertise of town leaders.

A 1961 graduate of Winthrop High School, Gill has a bachelor’s degree from Fitchburg State College and a master’s degree from Salem State College, both in education.

From 1965 through 1985, Gill taught industrial arts, first at Hamilton Wenham Regional High School and then for 18 years at Swampscott High School. He also chaired the Swampscott school’s practical arts department for the last six of those years.

Gill left teaching in 1985 to open a Century 21 real estate agency in Winthrop, which he owned until it merged with another Century 21 firm.

He remained with the agency as a broker until 2007.

Now retired, Gill lives with his wife, Maureen. The couple have four adult children and 10 grandchildren.

Thomas E. Reilly, who served as Winthrop’s first Town Council president, thinks Gill will be a good fit for the position.

“I think Peter knows the issues from all his years as a Town Meeting member,’’ said Reilly, who served as Gill’s campaign treasurer. He said Gill also knows the community well as a former local businessman, and understands educational issues from his years as a teacher. “I think all those years of experience in those different areas will serve him well.’’

Osborne said she looks forward to Gill’s tenure as council president.

“I think he will put his heart and soul into it. He really loves the town,’’ she said. “I think he can bring people together.’’

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