By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The campaign to build a new Hunking School took a major step forward last week in Boston when state school building officials voted to place the estimated $61.5 million project into its funding pipeline.
But there’s another meeting this week in Haverhill that may be even more important to the project’s ultimate success or failure.
A group of parents has formed what they are calling a “municipal ballot committee.’’ They will hold an organizational meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Bradford County Club, 201 Chadwick Road.
“The meeting is sort of a membership drive to broaden support for a new school,” said Deana Papanikolauo, one of the organizers who has two children at the current Hunking School, a deteriorated building that needs replacement, according to school officials. “We want to stress that this is for the city as a whole, not just Bradford.”
Last week’s vote by the state School Building Authority’s board of directors to place the project into its funding pipeline sets the stage for the city to hire a company to build the school. Superintendent James Scully said he expects the builder to be hired as soon as this week.
The state vote also signals the start of a local campaign to win the support of voters to pay the city’s $24 million share of building the new school. The vote is expected to be held in June.
The proposed 148,000-square-foot school is to be built next to the existing Hunking and accommodate up to 1,005 students in kindergarten through grade eight. It is to include at least two levels.
“Listening to the needs of a community and developing projects accordingly are our priorities” said Steven Grossman, who is state treasurer and building authority chairman. “Thanks to our collaborative effort with local officials, we are working to build a safe and modern educational facility that will provide students with a top-notch learning environment.”
According to a press release from the state school building authority about last week’s vote, Hunking School “suffers from deficiencies in major systems including electrical, mechanical, envelope and windows.”
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 two more years. About 450 students attend the existing grade-six-to-eight-school, which was built in 1959.
Papanikolauo said she remembers well getting the phone call two years ago that half of Hunking School was being closed and that her child was being temporarily relocated to the former Bartlett School on the other side of the city.
“This is about civic responsibility, for us to come together as a community and build up our educational infrastructure and solve this problem,’’ she said of the effort to replace Hunking.
Local 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 as well as other city schools.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he wants the city to hold an election in June in which voters will be asked to pay the city’s share of the new school.
The mayor said the proposed debt exclusion won’t 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 homeowner, he said.
“I prefer to think of it as a debt extension,” the mayor said. “It’s like if you own a home and you just paid off your mortgage, but you decide to refinance because you need a new roof or boiler, so you decide to extend your mortgage. It won’t cost anything extra, but you won’t get the break you were going to get when your mortgage was paid off.”
Nonetheless, Fiorentini acknowledged what everyone has suspected since it became clear two years ago that Hunking is unsalvageable: That winning voter support for the override was going to be the project’s biggest hurdle.
“The campaign is going to have be just like a political campaign, with people knocking on doors and making phone calls and sending out flyers and raising money,” Fiorentini said. “And most importantly, it has to be parent driven. Elected officials can’t be the ones to lead this.”
The state School Building Authority is scheduled to give final approval April 2 for the new school project, including its final design and budget. City Council is expected to place the spending proposition on the ballot soon after that. Fiorentini said he wants the vote held by the end of June at the latest, if possible, before many residents leave for summer vacations.