By Bill Cantwell and Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Voters will decide next month who will help lead Haverhill through a series of challenging educational issues, including building a new school in Bradford.
In the School Committee race on the Nov. 5 ballot, three incumbents are facing off against two challengers.
Voters will decide which three candidates are best suited to help lead the city’s schools, as Haverhill tries to replace the crumbling Hunking School while working to improve MCAS scores and maintain a balanced budget.
School Committee incumbents Joseph Bevilacqua, Paul Magliochetti and Raymond Sierpina are seeking re-election to four-year terms. They are counting on their established political names and experience serving on the committee to bring them victory.
Bevilacqua, head of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, is seeking a fourth term in office and has been a School Committee member for 12 years. Sierpina, former long-time principal of Tilton Elementary School in Haverhill, is in his first term on the committee, which he joined in January 2010. Magliocchetti, a local lawyer who has been an active school parent for years, is also in his first term and has been on the committee since January 2010. He is the committee’s president. He made an unsuccessful run last year as an Independent candidate for the 1st Essex Senate District.
Challengers Maura Ryan-Ciardiello and Gail Sullivan are banking on their educational and political experience to land them votes.
Ryan-Ciardiello is a teacher by training and currently stays at home with her children. She ran unsuccessfully for the Governor’s Council last year. She is the daughter of City Councilor William Ryan. Sullivan is a teacher at Northern Essex Community College and the University of New England. She has also been a high school principal, curriculum specialist, assistant superintendent and superintendent.
School Superintendent James Scully said this is a key time for education for Haverhill, noting two big issues the School Committee will face in the new year.
“The first major issue that I believe should be important to anyone seeking a (School Committee) seat is the construction of a new Hunking School because if that is not accomplished, it will educationally devastate the city,” Scully said.
“Those students will be crammed into classrooms across the city that are already at their limit,” he said of the risk of not building a new school and having to move Hunking students to other schools.
Two years ago, the city discovered structural deterioration that threatened to collapse part of the Hunking. Repairs have been made, but the building can be used for only a few more years, forcing Haverhill to build a new school, officials have said. The city is seeking state money to cover most of the construction cost. Local taxpayers are expected to go to the polls early next year to decide whether to pay Haverhill’s share of the project.
Scully said a second major issue facing the School Department is continuing with positive steps taken in the past three years that have improved the academic and athletic achievements of Haverhill students.
“We need positive support from our elected officials with respect to academic improvement and the recruitment of energetic and forward-moving staff members,” Scully said. “We have good momentum going on now, and that needs to be sustained. The positive changes we are seeing have generated over 200 new students (joining Haverhill schools) since June, and our athletic achievements are being recognized with conference championships and the like.”
Most candidates said the biggest educational issues facing Haverhill include construction of a new school to replace the Hunking and improving student performance on standardized testing, such as MCAS.
“We have 400 students being schooled in an inappropriate environment,’’ Sierpina said of the Hunking. “We as taxpayers cannot put any more money into this building.’’
Some Haverhill schools have seen improvement on MCAS scores, but others are lagging, making that a key issue for the School Department and candidates.
“We must provide support for teachers, MCAS improvement and the transition to the new federal test to establish a stronger, more appealing community,’’ Magliocchetti said.
“Haverhill’s students have the capacity to succeed, but the assessment shows that many students are not yet proficient in reading or math,’’ Sullivan said, adding the Hunking “crisis’’ never should have happened.
Bevilacqua agreed students need their best chance to succeed at standardized testing and in other areas, as well. He said a key issue facing Haverhill schools is “ensuring that each child reaches their maximum potential as a well-rounded student benefiting from academics, sports, music, arts.’’
Better student test scores must be a priority, Ryan-Ciardiello said, adding Haverhill needs better management of educational money.
“Recently, we’ve had issues with special education funding due to an oversight and facilities and buildings that lack funding for renovation and replacement,’’ she said. “There are areas of student achievement in standardized test scores that need rigorous focus for improvement.’’
The winning candidates will serve on the School Committee for the next four years. The committee has six members in total, with their terms staggered. That means three members are up for re-election this year and the other three are up for re-election in 2015. The mayor is chairman of the committee. Members get $5,000 per year and are eligible for health insurance from the city.
For the second city election in a row, there were no preliminary contests in September for School Committee, City Council or mayor.
When voters go to the polls Nov. 5, they will also choose nine city councilors from eight incumbents and seven challengers. There is no mayoral race on the ballot because no one turned in nomination papers to oppose incumbent James Fiorentini, who is seeking a Haverhill record sixth term in office. But Firefighter Tyler Kimball announced last week he plans a write-in campaign against Fiorentini.
The mayor and councilors serve for two years. Councilors get $8,000 per year, plus the option of taking city health insurance. The mayor’s annually salary is $90,000.