EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 14, 2014

Column: Haverhill's Hunking project is reasonable, cost-efficient

James F. Scully
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — On Friday, March 7, The Eagle-Tribune published a letter regarding the proposed construction of a new Hunking School and comparing it with a project in Newburyport. (“Haverhill should follow Newburyport’s lead on new school,” Michael Lesiczka.)

It would be a disservice to the children and families Haverhill to allow the misrepresentations in that letter to stand uncorrected.

There’s one fact I won’t challenge: Haverhill needs a well-built and functional Hunking School at a reasonable cost. The structural engineers who inspected the Hunking all say it has to close in four years. The engineers refuse to certify the building’s safety beyond that point.

However, some claims made in that letter require a rebuttal.

Myth: “Superintendent Scully, the Haverhill School Committee and the Hunking School Building Committee are not being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.”

Reality: The School Committee, council, mayor and I support this proposal because it is the most cost-effective and results in the smallest financial impact on the taxpayer of all the options studied. The cost to taxpayers for this project will not exceed what they have been paying in their property tax bills for the last bond the city took for school construction. For the owner of the average Haverhill home, that equals $67 a year, or $2.38 a week. Building this school saves taxpayers an $11 million bill to repair the Greenleaf School and hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for an undetermined length of time to bus Hunking students to other schools when the current building is declared unfit for use.

Myth: “The replacement of the Hunking School is very similar to the replacement of the Bresnahan School in Newburyport, though the Bresnahan is a little smaller.”

Reality: The two schools have very little in common. The Hunking will serve kindergarten though eighth grade. The Bresnahan will serve pre-K through third grade. The Hunking School will seat 1,005 students, compared with roughly 715 for Bresnahan. The Hunking School will be 148,000 square feet, compared with Bresnahan’s 112,517.

Myth: “Both projects involve demolishing a school, building a new one and building sports fields and playgrounds where the old schools stood.”

Reality: The Hunking project’s scope is greater than the Bresnahan in several critical areas. The Hunking is actually two schools built on one site that share central services; a “lower” school of K-4 and an “upper” of grades 5 through 8. The Bresnahan is a single entity that serves Pre-K-3. The Hunking serves two distinct student bodies – with distinct government mandates for space and amenities. The grade 5-8 school must provide science labs, tech-ed shops, project labs and a band room. These are larger and more costly than typical elementary school classrooms. The Hunking project includes additional site work to manage poorly draining soil on the site and to build two new athletic fields.

Myth: “The big difference is cost.”

Reality: The big difference is the schools’ different requirements. A better case can be made by comparing the Hunking with other recent projects, including middle schools. The Hunking is 148,000 square feet at an estimated construction cost of $50 million, or $338 per square foot. The per-square-foot cost of the Hunking is lower than three of four similarly sized and configured schools:

1. Whitman Hanson Elementary: 800 students, 133,3000 square feet, $345 per square foot.

2. Webster Park Avenue Elementary: 720 students, 109,000 square feet, $329 per square foot.

3. Henry Higgins Middle School: 1,340 students, 212,000 square feet, $354 per square foot.

4. Mountain View Middle School, 800 students, 136,400 square feet, $342 per square foot.

Myth: “Newburyport went to the state and is using a model school design, saving several million dollars in design costs. Superintendent Scully didn’t bother to consult with the state and ran out and hired an architect.”

Reality: The first call I made after discovering the structural problems at the Hunking School was to state Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester. Haverhill began working with the state in 2011. The state required that Haverhill hire an architect and owner’s project manager. It chose our architectural firm and approved our OPM. Haverhill asked to be invited into the model school program, but the state does not have a model school design that matches the Hunking’s configuration. The model school is only one of several ways to increase the state’s total reimbursement for school construction. Haverhill has taken advantage of a number of other programs, increasing its effective reimbursement rate to 61 percent. The effective reimbursement rate for the Bresnahan is 47.2 percent. Haverhill continues to follow the processes and protocols set by the Massachusetts School Building Authority on the Hunking project.

Since I started in public education in 1970, I have never written to the newspaper. But Haverhill deserves honesty and sincerity in connection with this project. We have to do this right.

James F. Scully is superintendent of the Haverhill Public Schools.