As Haverhill prepares to spend as much as $400,000 to repair the dilapidated Hunking Middle School, City Council president John A. Michitson is demanding the city adopt a comprehensive maintenance program for its public buildings to prevent another municipal structure from becoming a costly blight.
“The neglect of the current Hunking School is very costly,” said Michitson, just before the council voted on Tuesday evening to approve the School Department’s request to borrow $400,000 for the school, a portion of which was closed in October over fears that the building’s north wing could collapse. Sixth-graders were moved to the former Bartlett School, across the river from their Bradford neighborhood.
“The debacle we have now leaves us with only wasteful and costly options,” Michitson said. “If we were doing our maintenance all along, we wouldn’t be doing this now.”
Michitson said the cost to fund a comprehensive preventive maintenance program for Haverhill’s public schools and other municipal buildings should be included in the city’s annual budget, beginning with the spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Mayor James J. Fiorentini is expected to present his proposed budget for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, to the City Council in June, according to city auditor Charles Benevento. It was not clear last week whether the mayor’s blueprint for city spending would include the cost of preventive maintenance. Fiorentini did not return calls seeking comment.
The funding approved by the City Council for Hunking will provide a temporary fix that is expected to last four years, buying the city enough time to outline a plan to build and pay for a new Hunking school, which would likely cost between $55 million and $62 million, according to Superintendent James F. Scully.
Scully said he expects to learn this month whether the Massachusetts School Building Authority will help Haverhill build a new school. If the building authority approves the city’s request to replace the aging structure, the state would likely cover 68 to 72 percent of the cost, Scully said.
Haverhill would receive the higher reimbursement rate if the district bases the school’s design on a “model school,” or completed project, saving both time and money. Preliminary work on the existing Hunking school will begin in mid-April, when students are on vacation, according to Ralph Castagna, president of Castagna Construction Corp., the Newburyport company hired to complete the repairs.
Castagna said he expects to perform the bulk of the work over the summer with a completion date of Aug. 10, in time for the sixth-graders to return to the school for the start of the 2012-13 school year.
Workers, he said, will shore up the school’s foundation with 300 to 400 heavy-duty steel support columns, the remedy that structural engineers recommended.
Amid concerns about cost overruns, Castagna told the council that his firm’s $349,300 quote “is a guaranteed, lump-sum price.” Castagna, who has 27 years of construction experience and has built 25 public schools in Massachusetts, assured the council “there won’t be any change orders.”
Those comments prompted Councilor William Macek to propose the city borrow only $350,000 to cover the repairs, without the requested additional funding to cover any contingencies. Macek’s motion failed 6-3 and the council quickly went on to approve the School Department’s request, as submitted. The final vote was 8-1, with Councilor Sven Amirian the lone dissenter.
According to Scully, shoring up the Hunking school is in the city’s best interest. He said repairing the building is the best solution for Hunking students, allowing them to stay in their neighborhood school, and less costly for Haverhill taxpayers.
The city’s other options included renting portable classrooms for $2.8 million; leasing a private building for about $1.3 million; or spending roughly $204,000 per year to transport all of Hunking’s students to other schools throughout the city.
The alternative approved by the council was well received by the dozens of Hunking parents who attended Tuesday’s council meeting. The crowd burst into applause after the final vote was cast.
“They made the best of a bad situation,” said Kris Clark of Bradford.
“I have been pressing the city to take care of maintenance issues since 1995, when I first took office,” said Michitson. “This is the first time I feel confident we are making progress.”
Scully told the council that he is now assessing the School Department’s capital needs. Scully is expected to present his findings to the mayor in the coming weeks, so that Fiorentini can prioritize those needs in his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
The City Council can approve the mayor’s spending or reduce his proposed budget but cannot add to it. The council president is hopeful that the mayor’s budget proposal will include funding to address any pressing needs that the city’s public buildings may have.
“We must do this to prevent the current Hunking problem from occurring in another building,” Michitson said.
Brenda J. Buote may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.