By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — School Superintendent James Scully will bring the architect for a proposed new school to tonight's City Council meeting to discuss the $61.5 million plan — the largest and most expensive option being considered.
The School Committee and the Hunking Building Committee voted Aug. 29 to support replacing the deteriorated Hunking Middle School with a kindergarten-to-grade-eight school for 1,007 students.
Several councilors said they support the proposal, but are disappointed school officials and the architect did not provide more information about other, less expensive options at the Aug. 29 meeting.
Councilors said they hope to receive that information tonight, as well as the rationale for why the smaller school options have been discounted. Some councilors said they also want to review new findings that the Hunking site is suitable for new construction, despite concerns the property does not drain properly and that its condition contributed to the premature deterioration of the existing building.
Mayor James Fiorentini, who supports the kindergarten-to-grade-eight school proposal, said he will also attend tonight's meeting and wants to see all the council's questions answered.
"I want a deliberate and out-in-the-open process," Fiorentini said. "We want the council's support for a K-to-8 school and we will do whatever they want to get it. We're not going to rush this and we don't want it to appear that we are pushing it down their throat."
Councilor Colin LePage said he and other councilors were invited to meet in small groups with the architects yesterday in the mayor's office.
The JCJ architectural firm studied three other options that included new buildings with fewer grade levels and students, but none of those options were formally presented or even described at the Aug. 29 meeting, school and city officials said.
"I went to the meeting expecting to hear a debate over options for the replacement school," Councilor John Michitson said about the meeting. "Instead, only one choice was presented."
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 have since been made, but the building is expected to be usable for only a few more years. About 450 students attend the existing grade-six-to-eight-school.
Scully, other school officials and the architect have said replacing Hunking with a new kindergarten-to-grade-eight-school would allow the city to close the outdated and deteriorated Greenleaf School and relieve overcrowding at Bradford Elementary School as well as other city schools.
"This process is being directed by the (state) School Building Authority, and myself and the architects are doing our best to comply with that process," Scully said. "My job is to recommend what I think is best for kids and the school district and that's what I have done. But in the end, the decision on the size and cost of the new school rests with the state.
The council has no official role in developing the new school proposal, but councilors must eventually approve asking voters to pay the city's share of the cost, which has been set at a limit of $24 million. The debt-exclusion vote is the last step in the process and is expected to happen by early spring.
The mayor has said the proposed debt exclusion won't 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 homeowner, officials said.
The Aug. 29 vote for the preferred new school plan did not include the design or location of the building, which will be decided later and is scheduled to be presented to the state Feb. 27. The final scope and budget for the new school must be presented to the School Building Authority by April 2, according to a schedule for major decisions in the project.
Councilors said it's unclear to them how much the city is going to have to pay for the new school. School officials have said the state is expected to pay 68 to 72 percent of the cost, but School Committee member Scott Wood said the "effective" reimbursement rate is actually closer to 60 percent, because some costs associated with the project are not reimbursable. That's why the city is now projected to pay $24 million for a $61.5 million school, Wood said.