By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A parent group leading the campaign for a new Hunking school won their first victory last night.
City Council unanimously declared the proposed $61.5 million school critical to the city’s future and set June 10 as the day voters will go to the polls to consider temporarily raising property taxes to pay the city’s estimated $24 million share of the project. The state has agreed to pay the balance for a new, 1,005-student building in the city’s Bradford section that will serve students in kindergarten to grade eight.
Dozens of parents, students and school and city officials packed the standing-room-only meeting to support the plan, many wearing stickers bearing the slogan “Haverhill for Hunking: Vote Yes for School Success.”
“The last two and half years have been tough for Hunking parents and the students, not knowing how this serious problem was going to be fixed,” said Dena Papanikolaou, one of the parent organizers who has two children at Hunking.
In late 2011, the city closed half of Hunking Middle School due to fears a portion of the building could collapse. About 150 students were sent 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 or three more years.
Papanikolaou told the council that her son was one of the students moved across the city to another school in 2011. She recalled a day not long after that when her son was visiting his grandparents.
“They asked him how was school, which is common question that grandparents ask,” Papanikolaou said. “My son told them, ‘my school is a dump and people don’t care.’”
“I hope there is no doubt in this room that this is a community problem,” Papanikolaou said. “It’s not about one school in one area of the city effecting a few kids. It’s about addressing our city’s educational infrastructure and a problem that we need to come together as a community to fix.”
Mayor James Fiorentini said the city can’t afford to build the new school without a debt exclusion, which allows the city to exempt its share of the cost from the constraints of the Proposition 21/2 law. That law limits how much a community can raise taxes in a given year.
Without a debt exclusion, the city would have to pay its share of the cost in its annual operating budget. To do that, there would have to be “massive cuts” in other spending, including money for police officers, firefighters and teachers, the mayor said.
Fiorentini said that is the case because the city already makes yearly payments on several large loans, including its debt on the former city-owned Hale Hospital and bonds for Nettle School, the high school renovation, repairs to the downtown flood wall and to cap and close the old city landfill.
“I want to make it crystal clear, without a ‘yes’ vote, we cannot build this school,” Fiorentini said of the Hunking project.
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, and two more are expiring in a few years. The plan, he said, is to continue those payments for another 20 years to pay for the Hunking replacement.
Voters, however, still must agree to extend those payments, which currently amount to $67 a year for the average homeowner, the mayor said.
School Superintendent James Scully said the city is up against a tight time frame to close the existing Hunking building and get students into a new school.
“We need to be out of that building by 2016 or 2017,” Scully said. “The engineering firms have said they won’t certify the safety of the building past the 2016-17 school year.”
Without a new school, Scully said the district would have to find a place for about 500 Hunking students among the city’s already crowded schools. He said the additional transportation costs to bus those students out of Bradford would be exorbitant and that the city’s all-day kindergarten program would be among the casualties due to space limitations.
Despite the united front put up by parents and officials last night, several councilors stressed that the debt exclusion is going to be a tough sell to voters.
“It’s going to be very tough to sell this to voters,” Council President John Michitson said. “Senior citizens need to understand the value for them, in their terms.”
Fiorentini and others said the new school will boost real estate values everywhere in the city. Without it, they are just as likely to drop, he said.
“Anyone who has been paying attention for the past three years knows building a new school in the only responsible thing to do,” Councilor William Ryan said. “We can’t borrow without a debt exclusion, and doing nothing will cost us more in the long run. But if you don’t go door-to-door and make phone calls and really educate people about why this is needed, you won’t be successful because in this economy there are a great many people who are struggling to hang on to their homes.”
Papanikolaou said the parents will do whatever it takes to win the election.
“We have 140 volunteers emailing us regularly to ask what they can do,” she said. “We are ready to knock on doors and pound the pavement and do whatever it takes to win support for the ballot initiative.”
The plan, if the debt exclusion is approved in June, is to start building the new school next spring.