EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 8, 2013

Council questions expensive new school plan

Council: Why not consider cheaper options?

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — The City Council wants to know why only the largest and most expensive option for replacing the deteriorated Hunking Middle School was presented for a key vote on the project two weeks ago.

At an Aug. 29 special meeting of the School Committee and the Hunking Building Committee, both boards voted to recommend construction of a kindergarten-to-grade-eight-school for 1,005 students. The school is expected to cost $61.5 million, according to a rough estimate by the architectural firm that put together the proposal.

The vote of the building committee, whose members were appointed by Mayor James Fiorentini, was required by the state’s School Building Authority before it considers the city’s proposal Nov. 11.

City Councilors John Michitson, William Macek and Colin LePage said they attended the joint school and building committee meeting and were disappointed and confused why smaller, less expensive options for the new school were not presented, as well as the rationale for discounting the smaller options.

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 meeting, school and city officials said.

“I went to the meeting expecting to hear a debate over options for the replacement school,” Michitson told his fellow councilors at last week’s regular council meeting. “Instead, only one choice was presented.”

Councilors agreed to ask Superintendent James Scully to attend an upcoming council meeting to outline the options that were discounted and the rationale for eliminating them.

On Friday, Scully said he had yet to receive the council’s request, but he said he had already asked to attend an upcoming council meeting with the project’s architect to bring councilors up to speed on the project.

“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.”

In late 2011, the city closed part of the Hunking and moved about 150 students to another school due to structural problems in the foundation that 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 architectural firm 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.

The council has no official role in developing the new school proposal, but it must eventually approve a plan to ask voters to temporarily increase their property taxes 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.

“I am concerned the City Council is going to be out of the decision-making loop until we are asked to put the debt exclusion on the ballot,” Michitson said. “I’m worried we are just going to be asked to vote yes or no on a proposal, just like what happened to the School Committee at the last meeting. ...There seemed to be a lot of confusion at that meeting.”

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. The plan, the mayor said, is to continue those payments for another 20 years to pay for a new Hunking. Taxpayers, however, still must vote to extend those payments, which currently amount to $67 a year for the average homeowner, officials said.

School Committeeman Scott Wood, who is also on the Hunking Building Committee, said he also was disappointed that no other options for the new school were presented to the building committee. Wood said he and other committee members insisted the record of the meeting reflect that they were voting for the largest option because no other options were presented.

Wood said he supports the largest school option and believes it is best for the city, but, like the councilors, wanted to hear about the other options and why they were ruled out. He said he voted for the largest option at the meeting anyway because the building committee was up against a state deadline for selecting the so-called “preferred alternative.”

Michitson said he also is likely to support the preferred option, but that he wants to see “a detailed rationale” for it first.

“For instance, we know there’s going to be cost savings associated with shutting Greenleaf down, which is part of the argument for building the largest option, but we haven’t seen that analysis either,” Michitson said. “The voters deserve to see the details, not just asked to take someone’s word for what is best.”

Michitson and other councilors have also raised concerns that the city cannot change or scale back the proposal once the state’s School Building Authority votes to accept it Nov. 11.

“They suggested otherwise, but we can’t go back after SBA approves the preferred alternative,” Michitson said.

The Aug. 29 vote for the preferred alternative did not include the design or location of the new school, 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 also 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 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.