By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Now that local leaders agree to a plan for a new 1,005-student school, officials are taking their pitch to the public.
For the school to be built, voters must agree to pay Haverhill's $24 million share of the estimated $61.5 million cost. The state is expected to pay the rest, local officials said.
The school is expected to be built on playing fields next to the deteriorated Hunking Middle School in the city's Bradford section.
Superintendent James Scully said public informational meetings for parents and other residents will be held Wednesday at Silver Hill Elementary School and Oct. 2 at Bradford Elementary, both at 6:30 p.m.
"They are part of our ongoing effort to keep everyone informed of what's going on, where we are headed and why," Scully said of the meetings.
Mayor James Fiorentini said voters will be asked to approve paying the city's cost through a debt exclusion. He said that vote will come soon after the state School Building Authority approves the scope and budget for the new school on April 2. The school would house students in kindergarten to grade eight.
Fiorentini said the proposed debt exclusion won't increase taxes because current payments on the debt for elementary schools built almost 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, the mayor said.
Councilor John Michitson said it's inaccurate to say the debt exclusion won't increase property taxes, however.
"This might be politically unpopular to say, but I'd just like us to say it's going to cost this amount of money and it's going to increase taxes, but we think it's worth it," Michitson said.
The new school proposal cleared a major hurdle last week, when city councilors voiced unanimous support for the plan. Some councilors had asked why school officials were pushing for the largest project instead of giving consideration to building a smaller school. The mayor and School Committee agreed to the plan previously.
Jim LaPosta, chief architect for the JCJ Architecture firm designing the new school, said the largest option is actually the least expensive choice for Haverhill because it would allow the city to replace the outdated and deteriorated Greenleaf School and send Greenleaf students to the new school.
If the Greenleaf remains open, the city must spend $11 million to renovate that building and make it accessible to physically disabled students, LaPosta said. Greenleaf needs a new roof, elevator, stair lifts, mechanical and electrical systems and bathrooms, as well as upgrades to technology, he said. Closing the Greenleaf would also save the district a portion of the $1.7 million that is spent there annually to run the building, Scully said.
Scully said replacing Hunking with a new kindergarten-to-grade-eight-school would allow the district to relieve overcrowding at Bradford Elementary School, 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. He also said the proposed 1,005-student school would have room for about 100 students outside Bradford in an advanced middle school program.
While the council showed strong support for the 1,005-student proposal, several councilors raised concerns about how the city is going to come up with its share of the cost.
Michitson encouraged the mayor and school officials to investigate alternative ideas for paying the city's share. For instance, he said other previous tax-increasing debt exclusions that are coming off the books in the near future could be used to lessen the tax impact for the new school.
Those expiring obligations include the loan for Nettle Elementary School in 2020 and various debts on the formerly city-owned Hale Hospital that come off the tax rolls in 2023 and 2024, Michitson said.
Councilors Colin LePage and Michael McGonagle said they would like the city to explore the possibility of using a pre-existing school building design under a state program that could allow the city to increase its state reimbursement by 5 percent or $3 million.
LaPosta said the state School Building Authority must invite school districts into that program, but he conceded Haverhill has not asked the state about it. LePage and McGonagle asked him to do so.
Michitson said he would like the project's architects and consultants to develop a maintenance plan, including cost estimates, for taking care of the new building for the next 20 or so years. He also suggested school officials get a second opinion from the city's Conservation Commission about the suitable of the Hunking property for a new building.
LaPosta said soil testing showed the Hunking site is "wet," but could accommodate a new school on playing fields near the existing building. That plan would allow students to remain at the existing building until the new school is ready. The old school would then be demolished, LaPosta said.
The current building, built in the 1950s, was damaged by water seeping into the basement because it was built without a drainage system, LaPosta said. Water eventually degraded concrete in the foundation, he said.
LaPosta said soil under the property includes "dense silty sand" that doesn't allow surface water to drain, but that the condition is common in New England and is easily addressable with a modern drainage system.
"It's not anything that requires a special foundation or an exotic drainage system," LaPosta told councilors Tuesday night. "We're talking about regular engineering."
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.