By Bill Cantwell
---- — HAVERHILL — As the city discovers more structural problems at Hunking School, residents will likely be asked to vote early next year on whether to pay for a new school.
That is according to a timeline suggested by an architect studying the project, including the building’s size and cost.
In late 2011, the city closed part of the Hunking and moved about 150 students to another building due to structural problems that threatened to collapse part of the Hunking, school officials said. Repairs to the Hunking have since been made, but it is expected to be usable for only four more years at most, the officials said.
More recent studies show the Hunking is deteriorating further, Superintendent James Scully said.
During a tour of the building yesterday by The Eagle-Tribune, workers were cleaning up debris in a bathroom that has been closed to students. Scully said the tile on the bathroom floor has broken apart due to groundwater rising into the base of the building. That problem exists because the school was built on wetlands about 50 years ago, according to him and engineers working for the city.
Other recent problems include a large crack in a cement block wall inside a closet.
Scully has stressed that the recent deterioration causes no safety risks for students, but that he believes it shows the school cannot be saved, so a new one must be built. He said the school is monitored regularly for structural safety and air quality.
Haverhill is eligible for state money to pay about two thirds of the cost of building a new school. That would leave city taxpayers footing about one third of the cost.
Last week, city and school officials hosted the first in a series of meetings to inform residents about the Hunking’s condition and Haverhill’s effort to build a replacement school. At the meeting, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, whose district includes most of Haverhill’s Bradford section where the Hunking is located, said the city should take advantage of the available state money.
For that to happen, residents must approve paying Haverhill’s one-third share of the cost through a debt exclusion — exceeding the taxation limits of Proposition 21/2 for a particular project and limited time.
Scully and Campbell told residents attending the meeting that the city would lose its opportunity for state construction money for several years if the debt exclusion did not pass.
“You are in the pipeline now, which is a very good thing,’’ Campbell said of Haverhill being in line for the state money, which communities across Massachusetts compete for. “You don’t want to drop out of the pipeline, or you lose your chance for a very long time.’’
Architect James LaPosta, who is working for the city, said if Haverhill voters fail to approve the debt exclusion, the money set aside for Haverhill would be released and another community would receive it. Haverhill would “go to the end of the line’’ and start the process again from the beginning, he said.
Mayor James Fiorentini said voters will be asked to pass a debt exclusion for the new school, but only for the amount of time needed to pay back the amount borrowed.
Fiorentini said Haverhill’s last debt exclusion, which ends in four years, raised the average tax bill $63 per year for improvements to Haverhill High School. He said rather than returning that $63 annual amount to taxpayers, he will ask voters to continue to pay it, this time to cover the cost of replacing the Hunking.
Fiorentini said he will not ask for a Proposition 21/2 override, which would permanently increase the city’s debt limit.
In the next month, engineers will test the current Hunking site to determine the makeup of the soil under the school. LaPosta said he has heard stories, confirmed by audience members during the meeting, that the school was built on wetlands that were filled in.
In the fall, the process of moving toward a new will escalate. By the end of September, the city’s School Building Committee will vote on the options, choosing a preferred plan, LaPosta said.
The city will have until the end of February to submit a school design to the state. State education officials will decide on the design in early April. If it is approved, the city and state will enter into an agreement on design and budget. Then Haverhill voters will decide by ballot vote whether they support paying the city’s share.
Last week’s public meeting was the first in what is expected to be several such meetings on the project. LaPosta said the next will likely be after Labor Day.