By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It all starts tomorrow.
A group of parents with a mission of convincing voters to pay for a new school will have their first meeting Thursday night, a rallying event of sorts.
The parents are looking to gain support for a replacement for the deteriorated Hunking School. They are seeking other parents and residents to join them at the meeting and during an upcoming campaign in support of the school.
Dena Papanikolaou, one of the organizers who has two children at Hunking, said the meeting will kick off a membership drive to broaden support for a new school.
“This will be a grassroots campaign where people will be knocking on doors, making phone calls and distributing literature to help voters understand and support the issue,” she said.
Papanikolaou said the group has reached out to parent-teacher organizations at Hunking and other Haverhill schools, as well as to the District Parent Council. That council is also promoting tomorrow night’s meeting and encouraging residents to learn more about the proposed project.
Calling themselves a “municipal ballot committee,” the group will hold its first public meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Bradford Country Club, 201 Chadwick Road.
School officials said the current Hunking School has deteriorated so badly that it must be replaced.
Papanikolauo said the group will campaign to support a ballot question they expect will be before voters in June. The question will ask voters to determine if they will pay Haverhill’s share of building a new school.
The project took a major step forward last week 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 he wants the city to hold a vote in June in which residents will be asked to pay the city’s share.
The mayor 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.
Papanikolauo said a new Hunking School will benefit the entire city, not just Bradford where the new school would be located, because when any part of the school system fails it causes a drain on other parts.
“If we don’t have another facility in place to take these students, where are they going to go?” she 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.
According to a press release from the state School Building Authority regarding 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 built in 1959.
Last week’s vote by the state School Building Authority’s board of directors to place the project into its funding pipeline set 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 proposed 148,000-square-foot school is to be built next to the existing Hunking and accommodate up to 1,005 students.
Fiorentini has said winning voter support for a debt exclusion to help pay for the new school will be the project’s biggest hurdle. He likened it to a political campaign, but said it has to be driven by parents.
“Elected officials can’t be the ones to lead this,” he said.
The state is scheduled to give final approval April 2 for the 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.
Scully said he plans to attend tomorrow’s meeting.
“Some have asked what happens if this doesn’t get passed by voters,” Scully said. “The implications of not having a proper setting for 500 children who we need to find space for is going to be more costly than not addressing this problem correctly now.
“I trust the citizens of Haverhill will understand that no matter what has happened in the past, with this project we’ve done our homework and we have researched every single avenue to make sure this project is cost effective and addresses the building needs in that section of the city for the next 50 to 100 years.”
In 2002, voters shot down a debt exclusion that would have partially paid for a renovation of Haverhill High School when the school was on probation for its accreditation.
When that debt exclusion vote failed, the city scaled down the project. Haverhill is paying about $8 million of the $27 million high school renovation project through its operating budget, while the state is paying the rest.
IF YOU GO
What: Parents meet to organize new school drive
When: Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Bradford Country Club, 201 Chadwick Road