By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — More than 30 residents volunteered last night to go knocking on doors throughout the city in an effort to convince fellow citizens to support building a new Hunking School.
They said they are also willing to make phone calls, distribute informational pamphlets, post messages on their Facebook pages and even send out tweets to help gain support for a debt exclusion to help pay for a new school.
“I’m willing to go door to door,” said Daisy Estrella, who has two children attending Pentucket Lake Elementary School. “We need a new Hunking School.”
Last night more than 120 residents along with school officials, administrators and city officials, met at the Bradford Country Club to learn about a grassroots organization of parents who want to convince voters of the need for a new Hunking School. Their campaign tagline is “Haverhill for Hunking” and their goal is convince voters that a new Hunking will benefit the entire city and not just the Bradford section.
In late 2011, the city closed part of the Hunking and moved about 150 students to another school due to structural problems. 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.
A group of parents calling themselves a “municipal ballot committee” held their first membership drive in hopes of gaining support to replace the deteriorated school. Because last night’s public meeting was a membership drive, they were’t allowed to hold it in a municipal building. However, the group does plan to host informational sessions at schools throughout the city as their campaign unfolds and grows over the next several months.
Dena Papanikolaou, one of the organizers who has two children at Hunking, told the crowd that the stakes are too high to just sit on the sidelines and urged people to get involved in the campaign.
“Our ballot initiative committee has four members right now and we want others to get involved,” said Papankiolaou, a lawyer with the state Department of High Education.
Erik Nugent, who has a 9-year-old son attending Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School in Haverhill, signed up for the Get Out The Vote committee. He said he likes the fact that a new Hunking will have a focus on Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics, or STEM.
“Our biggest hurdle will be convincing voters who vote no on everything involving money,” Nugent said.
Kathy Kaczor, who has one child at Golden Hill Elementary School and one at the Nettle Middle School, also volunteered to help.
Kaczor, who ran unsuccessfully for School Committee, said a new Hunking is a much better investment that spending millions on updating the Greenleaf School, which she said would not be reimbursed by the state.
“We’d lose families, we’d lose all day kindergarten and the cost of busing Hunking students all over the city would be ludicrous,” she said in reference to the fallout of not building a new Hunking.
School Superintendent James Scully told the crowd that replacing Hunking with a new kindergarten-to-grade-eight school housing 1005 students would allow the district to relieve overcrowding at Bradford Elementary, as well as other city schools. He said about 200 students who live in Bradford are now bused to schools in other parts of the city because there isn’t room for them in Bradford buildings.
“What we do here does affect every school in the city,” Scully told the crowd. “There are issues of overcrowding across the city that will be eased.”
He said replacing Hunking with a new kindergarten-to-grade-eight-school will also allow the city to close the outdated and deteriorated Greenleaf Elementary School.
Scully said that if Greenleaf remains open, the city must spend $11 million to renovate the building and make it accessible to physically disabled students. But, spending millions on the Greenleaf would not solve problems of overcrowding, continued busing of students or finding places to house Hunking students once that building is eventually closed due to structural deficiencies, officials said.
Jim LaPosta, chief architect for the JCJ Architecture firm that is designing the new school, showed the crowd a site plan of the proposed new Hunking, indicating it would be built on land adjacent to the current school. Students would continue attending the existing Hunking, then would move into the new school when it opens. He said that if voters pass the debt exclusion this summer, a new Hunking would be ready to open by the fall of 2017.
Papanikolaou talked about what she called “myths” surrounding a new Hunking, such as it will be built on swampland and that traffic on South Main Street will worsen. LaPosta responded by saying problems with the soil are easily addressable with a modern drainage system and that the site underwent extensive soil testing.
He said the staggered start times for the lower and upper grades of a kindergarten-to-grade-eight Hunking along with new traffic signals that are part of the state’s $13 million South Main Street reconstruction project can be tweaked to avoid traffic problems.
LaPosta told the crowd that the Hunking was built in 1959 at a time when construction was done cheaply. He said that the root cause of the school’s structural problems began that year, because the school was built without an adequate drainage system and with a dirt-floor crawl space — a type of construction no longer used because it weakens the foundation.
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.