HAVERHILL — Approximately 250 students at the troubled Hunking Middle School can expect to finish the school year there, Superintendent James Scully said.
The Winchester Street building's north wing was closed three months ago over fears it could collapse, requiring 140 sixth-graders to be moved to the former Bartlett School on the other side of the Merrimack River. Last month, the School Committee and City Council voted to seek money from the state to build a new school in Bradford.
Several Hunking teachers have also complained of rashes and illnesses they believe were caused by poor air or something else in the dilapidated building. An environmental firm said the building is poorly ventilated and has mold in the air, but that the air is safe to breathe. State public health officials agree with that assessment, although more testing and daily monitoring is ongoing, Scully said.
Over Christmas break, Scully said, workers removed sinks and pipes in classrooms so that nothing above the floor has contact with the area under the school, which is polluted with asbestos, tests have confirmed.
"If I didn't think the building was safe for my own kids, I would close it," Scully said. "That's my rationale (for keeping it open)."
The superintendent said he expects a large repair project to shore up the closed wing to begin next month. That will allow the sixth-graders at Bartlett to return to Hunking next year, Scully said. He said officials still don't have a reliable estimate for the work, but that he expects it will cost less than $500,000.
Kelly Valaskatgis, president of the Haverhill Parents Shaping Our Schools group that is advocating for a new Hunking, said parents are encouraged by the support they have received so far from city officials.
"There are mixed feeling among parents about students spending the rest of the year there," said Valaskatgis, who has one child at Hunking and two younger ones at Bradford Elementary. "Personally, I'm not worried. But there are definitely some parents who want their kids moved. But we realize that would be very expensive and no one wants to see the students separated among a bunch of other schools, which would also lead to overcrowding elsewhere."
Valaskatgis said the parents groups recently launched a website — hpsos.org — that includes updates about the campaign for a new school and photographs of Hunking's deteriorated condition.
If approved, the state is expected to pay 68 percent of the cost of a new school for 1,200 students, which Scully has estimated at $50 million. That would leave Haverhill on the hook for at least $16 million.
Mayor James Fiorentini has said voters will likely have to agree to temporarily raise taxes to cover the city's end — a dubious proposition he has promised to support.
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