When the bell rings, kids spill out of Lowell High School and into downtown. With more than 3,000 students, it’s among the largest high schools in the state. It’s also strikingly diverse; two thirds of the students are people of color. The high school’s hodgepodge of buildings are dilapidated. From leaks to ventilation problems, everyone seems to agree something has to be done.

But the question that has roiled the city is what exactly to do: renovate the downtown campus or build a new high school on the edge of town? 

Michael Gallagher has been spearheading the effort to renovate the existing campus. He says one of the appeals of keeping the campus downtown is what’s nearby.

“Down the street a little bit is the Merrimack Repertory Theater,” he said. “Across the street from that is the Middlesex Community College, where they can attend classes.”

Gallagher is a Lowell native, and although neither he nor his children attended the public high school, he argues that the central location benefits everyone. Students patronize local businesses and provide the city’s downtown with some much-needed vitality. And since many students can walk to school, their families and the district save on transportation costs.

“Why would we ever want to have the high school located anywhere else?” he asked. “The folks on the other side of this issue want to bring it out to the edge of a suburban area.”

Rob Fardin is one of those folks. He heads an organization advocating for a new school on Lowell’s eastern edge, about three miles from downtown in the leafy Belvidere neighborhood.

He gestures to a large plot of land that’s currently the school’s athletic fields and Cawley Stadium where the new building would be located. “If the plan goes through,” he said, “what you would see here is a school that kind of looks like almost a little bit of an L.”

The cost of building this new high school could exceed $300 million and be the costliest in state history. Fardin counters that it would cost just as much to renovate the downtown campus, adding that a brand-new facility would attract residents to Lowell.

But, he concedes that his motivation is pretty simple. “I do not want my children going to school on a construction site,” he said, noting that there’s no way he’ll allow his two daughters to endure a renovation that will likely stretch beyond four years.

If the city does renovate, he says he’ll look into private schools or maybe a charter. “I don’t know whether I have the means or not to send them to an alternative, but I will try to figure out an alternative," he said. "It just does not make sense.”

The high school debate has fractured Lowell’s City Hall. The School Committee voted for renovations to the downtown campus, and the City Council narrowly voted to build new in Belvidere.

There’s been ugly accusations back and forth, and a lawsuit over whether the Committee or the Council has the final say. Candidates for both chambers have lined up on one side or the other, and voters will have their say in a non-binding referendum on Nov. 7.

But here’s the catch: Some voices are much louder than others.

“Belvidere is the strongest, most politically connected neighborhood in all the city,” said Fardin, who points out that the neighborhood’s residents dominate the City Council.

Belvidere is an affluent and largely white neighborhood that’s influening the future of a majority-minority high school.

Both Fardin and Gallagher have spent much of their adult lives in Belvidere, and both admit neither side of the debate sufficiently represents Lowell’s minority communities.

“For a city with such a strong and diverse population,” Fardin asked rhetorically, “do you see that reflected in the people that are kind of out in the forefront of this debate? The answer is: No, I don't.”

For his part, Gallagher said, “I’m not sure that as a city we’ve done a good enough job getting the word out about the issues at stake, but we’re working on that.”

He says his team is going to translate their literature into Spanish and Khmer or Cambodian.

That's because Lowell has among the largest Cambodian communities in the country. Historically, they haven't wielded much political influence in Lowell, but there have been recent efforts to change that, including a voting rights lawsuit and voter registration drives.

“I think more people are getting engaged and even if it’s a very small incline every year, it’s still an incline” says Sovanna Pouv, who runs the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.

His organization has also teamed up with a group embedded in the Latino community to host an information session on where to locate the high school.

“We had about 90 people in there," Pouv said. "We had Spanish and Khmer interpretation going on at the same time.”

He believes that the high school debate is a good issue to draw out the community because it’s concrete and the choices are clear. “Before, folks wouldn't get that involved because they wouldn't worry or care about stuff going on too much in the city, but I think the high school is really a good conversation starter for many people,” he said.

Sovanna Pouv admits that it is unlikely participation and representation in city politics will change by the Nov. 7 election. But, he says, they will continue making an effort and work to get their voices heard, regardless of whether the high school is renovated or built in Belvidere.