By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — The deteriorating Hunking School has yet another safety problem.
Heavy, wet snow threatened to collapse part of the building’s roof this week, school official said. But students were out of harm’s way because of February vacation.
In an effort to prevent a potential disaster that would have kept Hunking students from returning to school next week, officials ordered the roof over the north wing of the building cleared of snow. They said they did so on the recommendation of structural engineers.
“As you know the engineers have indicated that in addition to the deteriorated structural supports, so too does the inadequate or poorly designed roof supports remain a concern,” Superintendent James Scully said in an email to School Committee members yesterday.
“Thus I ordered that appropriate action be taken,” he said in the email, referring to workers removing snow from the roof.
School officials have repeatedly said the Hunking is so badly deteriorated that it must be replaced. The weakened roof is just the latest in a series of structural problems there, they said.
In late 2011, the city closed part of the Hunking and moved about 150 students to another school due to structural problems in the Hunking foundation, which threatened to collapse part of the building. Repairs were made and the students were eventually moved back to Hunking, but the building is expected to be usable for only a few more years. About 450 students attend the grade-six-to-eight-school built in 1959.
The School Department is in the midst of the design process for a new building to replace the 50-year-old Hunking, which has been given a life of another three to four years by engineers who have studied the structure after repairs.
The proposed 148,000-square-foot new school is to be built next to the existing Hunking and house up to 1,005 students.
Earlier this month, a group of parents with a mission of convincing voters to pay for a new school held their first public meeting to generate support. Haverhill is in line for the state to pay about two-thirds of the cost, if the city’s taxpayers agree to cover the rest.
Scully said recent snowstorms that were followed by rain, sleet and rising temperatures spurred him to order the roof cleared at the Hunking and roof drains cleared at other schools around the city.
On Thursday morning, a six-man crew arrived at Hunking to begin the day-long process of removing snow and clearing channels for melting runoff to drain from the roof.
Scully said he and Facilities Manager Thomas Geary are doing all they can to keep the building in the best condition possible until the new school is built.
Geary explained that although the Hunking roof appears flat, it is slightly pitched toward the middle, where there are drains. The roof workers created trenches to allow water to flow freely, he said.
“This is just another example of unbudgeted items that continue to plague us, but must be attended to,” Scully said.
Scully said the cost to clear the Hunking roof of snow in the past has run from $3,000 to $10,000. He said there is a cost to clearing snow from other school roofs, as well. The work is needed to reduce their weight loads.
The state School Building Authority has approved preliminary design plans for a new school to serve kindergarten through grade eight in a lower and upper school format with shared space in the center, including a media center, offices, auditorium and cafeteria.
In about a month, the city’s design team expects to have a final floor plan and budget ready for review. The city expects to learn in early June whether the city will receive reimbursement for the cost of the construction. The state will make the payment if Haverhill voters approve a debt exclusion vote, which is expected to take place on June 10.
The parent group has launched a grass roots campaign to support the anticipated ballot question.
The project took a major step recently when state officials voted to place the estimated $61.5 million plan into the state’s funding pipeline. The state vote also signaled the start of a local campaign to win the support of voters to pay the city’s $24 million share of building the school.
Mayor James Fiorentini said the proposed debt exclusion would not actually increase taxes because current payments on the debt for two elementary schools built about 20 years ago are about to expire. He said the plan is to continue those payments for another 20 years to pay for the Hunking replacement. Taxpayers, however, still must vote to extend those payments, which currently amount to $67 a year for the average single-family homeowner, he said.
School officials have said replacing Hunking with a new kindergarten-to-grade-eight-school will also allow the city to close the outdated and deteriorated Greenleaf School and relieve overcrowding at Bradford Elementary School and other buildings.