By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — School leaders and architects for the proposed $61.5 million kindergarten-to-grade-eight school in the city’s Bradford section aced a major test last night.
City councilors asked the team developing the project to provide information about why smaller, less expensive options for replacing the deteriorated Hunking Middle School were discounted and to convince them the Hunking property is suitable for a new building.
Jim LaPosta, chief architect for the JCJ Architecture firm that is designing the new school, said the largest option to accommodate 1,005 students is actually the least expensive choice for Haverhill because it would allow the city to replace the outdated and deteriorated Greenleaf School and send Greenleaf students to the new school.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 Greenleaf remains open, the city must spend $11 million to renovate the building and make it accessible to physically disabled students, LaPosta said.
Superintendent James 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.
“This is a city issue, not a Bradford problem, because if we don’t build a new school we’ll have to find room for 500 kids at other schools, and every single other school is already overcrowded,” Scully said.
Councilors raved about the presentation and unanimously backed the proposal.
“This was the best presentation for any project I’ve even seen,” Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said. “I don’t think any one of us is going to disagree with you about the importance of this project for our children and the city.”
Councilor William Macek said the presentation gave him “clarity” about why the 1,005-student school is the best option.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan said he knows people who sold their homes and left the city due to concerns about the future of Hunking School.
“The 1,005-student school is clearly the best option because it has the lowest cost for the city and it eliminates the Greenleaf headache,” said Sullivan, who added that both his daughters attended Hunking in the early 2000s. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle to improve all schools in the district.”
“You have made the case that this is the best option and anything else would be foolish and a waste of money,” Councilor William Ryan told Scully. “We are united with you on this.”
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.
LaPosta said soil testing showed the Hunking site is “wet” but suitable for a new school on playing fields near the existing building. 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. “We’re talking about regular engineering.”
Several parents at the meeting said they were encouraged by what they heard.
“I was very impressed with the presentation and I’m optimistic about the comments I heard from councilors,” said Dena Papanikolaou, who has two children at Hunking. “It’s time for our leaders to step up to the plate on this and I think I saw that start tonight.
“Conditions at Hunking are awful and it’s unconscionable to be teaching students in the basement at Greenleaf,” she said, referring to the fact that the library, cafeteria and bathrooms are in the basement at Greenleaf School.
“It’s an amazing plan,” parent Alexandra Alvino said of last night’s pitch. “I just hope the rest of Haverhill sees it and gets off the money.”
Officials said the city must pay $24 million toward the new school, with the state paying the rest. Voters must approve the city’s end by passing a debt exclusion in the spring allowing Haverhill to pay its share of the cost for 20 years.
Mayor James Fiorentini has said the proposed debt exclusion won’t increase taxes because current payments on the debt for 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, the mayor said.
Councilors acknowledged it’s going to be a tough sell despite the critical need for a new school.
“Your challenge is going to be convincing the public that they should agree to pay a little more taxes for the greater good,” Councilor Michael Hart told Scully.