By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — School officials said neglected repairs and mistakes by contractors who renovated the high school have left taxpayers on the hook for a least $1 million in unfinished work.
The officials are demanding answers from Mayor James Fiorentini.
School Committee President Paul Magliocchetti said the mayor is to blame for not going after contractors responsible for problems that include unsafe curbing at building entrances and deficiencies with the high school’s heating, air-conditioning and ventilation system. The air quality issues resulted when a contractor quit in the middle of the job, school officials said.
“Ultimately, this all falls to the mayor,” Magliocchetti said. “He put the project’s structure in place. It was his job to oversee the renovation if there was no formal clerk of the works. It was his job to watch over the project, to make sure it was done right and to go after mistakes.”
Most of the problems are highlighted in a letter from Thomas Geary, the city’s maintenance director, to School Superintendent James Scully.
Geary’s letter reports details such as the badly deteriorated roof of the pool building, unfinished common area ceilings in which pipes and wiring are exposed, the absence of an exterior irrigation system to maintain grassy areas, and a lack of security upgrades that school officials said should have been part of the $34 million renovation, paid for by the city and state. The renovation was completed two years ago.
Geary also said the building should have its own budget and technician in light of its heavy use and the recent investment by taxpayers.
Scully said the system that heats the swimming pool is malfunctioning and must be replaced. He said the list of fixes and upgrades comes to around $1 million.
Mayor: Job went fine, complaints involve extras
Fiorentini said he did not hear of any of the alleged problems until contacted by The Eagle-Tribune late last week. Regardless, he said most of the items have nothing to do with the school renovation.
“These are things the School Committee wants to add at the high school,” the mayor said.
“If they want to add things like more security features, they have a $55 million budget to do it,’’ he said, referring to the annual School Department spending package. “If they want to spend more on maintenance, I agree they should.”
Fiorentini said he doubts the validity of many of the issues raised by Geary, Scully and Magliocchetti. For instance, the mayor said he has never heard of any major problems with the new heating and ventilation system, which he noted was completed two years ago.
“There might be some problems with the system’s controls, but it works fine,” the mayor said. “If there are problems, why have they waited two years to say anything about it?
“If they want me to sue someone, I’ll look into it and if a contract has not been followed, we’ll take action,” said Fiorentini, who is a lawyer. “But before I’m going to go public about suing someone, I’m going to make sure we have a case. It’s irresponsible to talk about law suits before we have all the facts.”
The mayor stressed that, in his opinion, the renovation has been “a tremendous success.” He said voters, who in 2002 rejected an tax-increasing measure that would have paid for a larger project, got exactly what they wanted.
“Voters wanted us to get the building accredited, which is what we did for a fraction of the cost of what other cities and towns paid to renovate and build new schools,” he said. “We only had enough money for basic improvements. ... Despite the recent criticism, about two years after the project was done, I have heard nothing but good about this project. The school looks great and works well.”
City Council demands answers
Magliocchetti said he is drafting a letter to Fiorentini on behalf of the School Committee seeking information about the renovation.
“The bottom line is the renovation didn’t do everything that was necessary due to financial constraints,” said Magliocchetti, who is also a lawyer. “But an even bigger issue is that mistakes were made by contractors and nothing has been done about it. We are supposed to require the contractors to post a bond, so we have money to go after if there are problems. Did we do this? I don’t know.”
Magliocchetti said the school district has already spent money fixing high school doors that were not properly wired for security during the renovation, and that more money is needed to fix other mistakes made by contractors, including problems with walkways and uneven pavement leading to the school’s main entrance, the auditorium and the gym.
“We should be going after the contractors, not using money that would be better spent on academic programs to fix problems,” Magliocchetti said. “Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for mistakes that were made during construction?”
The renovation, which began in 2004 and was completed about two years ago, was designed to address concerns raised in 1998 when the New England Association of Schools and Colleges threatened to revoke the high school’s accreditation. The state contributed about $25 million for the work.
In 2002, when voters rejected a tax increase to pay for a $55 million renovation, school and city officials decided to repair and improve the building in stages for less money by paying the city’s share of the cost in Haverhill’s annual operating budget. Proponents of the process have celebrated the fact the city was able to renovate the 677,333-square-foot building without raising taxes. Critics have argued that led to many shortcomings, however.
Key components of the renovation included replacing all the building’s windows and doors; installing new systems to clean the air and heat and cool the school; renovating the building that houses the swimming pool; adding new science laboratories; and improving the building’s electrical systems and access for people with disabilities. The campus driveway and grounds were also redesigned during the renovation, and a short time later the School Department spent about $1 million to upgrade technology in the building.
City Councilor John Michitson, who has consistently complained the city does not properly maintain its schools and other buildings, said the concerns raised by Magliocchetti and other school officials are especially troubling, given the city’s financial investment in the high school.
“This is something the City Council certainly needs to be briefed on, especially since it could have implications for Hunking,” Michitson said. “We need to get this on an upcoming agenda and get the mayor in.”
The city is doing a $800,000 study to consider its options for replacing or rehabilitating the troubled Hunking Middle School. That building, which has problems with its foundation, is expected to be usable for no more than four more years. The city faces the prospect of raising taxes to build a new school or rehabilitating the building with money from the regular city budget, as it did at the high school.