By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — A year ago, voters rejected a $21.5 million plan to upgrade Fisk, Soule and Haigh elementary schools.
But if everyone at Town Hall last night had their way, those three schools will soon be renovated.
Residents urged the Budget Committee to back a new, less expensive renovation plan — proposed in two warrant articles — that allocates $17 million for improvements, including a $16.2 million bond.
“I think both are important for the future of our town,” said Sherry Kilgus-Kramer, president of Strengthen Our Schools. “I hope you can find it in your hearts and minds to support both.”
Kilgus-Kramer said the schools are crowded and have makeshift classrooms. She has two children who attend Soule.
“A cafeteria is no place to have a gym class,” she said. “You just shouldn’t have class in hallways and closets.”
Resident Kristine Nippert agreed.
“Well-maintained and renovated schools will help this community thrive,” she said. “People don’t want to come to a community where their children are educated in hallways, in closets.”
The committee voted 8-0 to recommend residents approve the $16.2 million bond in March. They also supported the second warrant article — a proposal to spend an additional $805,237 at Haigh — and endorsed a citizens petition article seeking $679,000 for a multipurpose room at Soule.
But talk of possibly closing Haigh because of declining enrollment and doubling the proposed tax increase by building the multipurpose room brought criticism from Stephen Campbell, the Board of Selectmen’s representative to the committee.
“I do believe the Haigh School is going to end up closed sooner or later,” he said. “The question is, ‘Why would you do this now?’”
Committee member Dane Hoover agreed it would be best to wait because of the school’s uncertain future.
“By the time it’s done, there will be 200 less students in the system,” he said.
The vote to recommend the additional Haigh upgrades was 6-2.
The $16.2 million bond calls for spending $369,682 on Haigh and the remainder on the two other schools. The $369,682 would fund improvements needed to maintain the building — whether it is used as a school or not.
The second article, requesting $805,237 in additional money for Haigh, is automatically defeated unless at least 60 percent of voters support the 20-year bond. All three elementary schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
The School Board decided to hold off on a full $5.5 million renovation of Haigh in case it is closed.
Campbell criticized the multipurpose room proposal, saying it would be too costly and unnecessary since Soule would be expanded anyway if the bond article were approved.
If all warrant articles and the multipurpose room were approved, the school portion of the tax rate would increase 3 percent — or 38 cents per $1,000. It is now $12.47 per $1,000. The multipurpose room accounts for nearly half of that increase.
Committee member Barry Pietrantonio asked Superintendent Michael Delahanty if the gymnasium at the school had been upgraded since 1973. Pietrantonio
“No” Delahanty said.
“That’s when I graduated from Soule School,” Pietrantonio said. “It was pretty small then.”
Another warrant article backed by the committee was a one-year, 1.25 percent pay raise approved for the 188 members of the Salem Educational Support Personnel Association. The union represents school aides.
Although Kilgus-Kramer, Nippert and only two other residents spoke at the public hearing, they all voiced support for the renovations.
Kilgus-Kramer said the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut are a perfect example of why basic upgrades and security need to be improved at the schools. Nippert echoed her remarks.
“People want their children in a safe school,” Nippert said.
Resident Dave Carney, who coaches youth sports, said athletic facilities at Fisk, Soule and Haigh pale in comparison to the newly renovated facilities at the district’s three other elementary schools.
“There are certainly a lot of inequities,” he said.
The School Board will hold its own public hearing on the renovation bond Tuesday at Salem High School.