The aging Tilton School is one of three schools that will be assessed by the state if the city’s request is approved.
The first steps toward repairing or replacing three city schools took place last night when Haverhill city councilors unanimously voted to ask the state for help.
During final votes on the city budget for the year that begins Friday, councilors voted to compel the administration to file a “statement of interest” with the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The statement, due to the state before next April, kicks off a process that could lead to the state paying for up to 72 percent of the costs of rehabilitating or replacing Tilton, Consentino and Whittier schools. Mayor James J. Fiorentini endorsed the plan after denying a request to add $300,000 immediately for additional repairs at the schools.
“There’s no outcry in the city saying taxes are too low,” Fiorentini said, explaining why he refused the school spending request. He said other older schools, such as Walnut Square, have similar building problems. He recommended the city instead ask the state to assess the schools. Fiorentini said Tilton received a new summer school program last year and the city is this year matching a $50,000 contribution for the Tilton library.
Councilor Colin F. LePage, who championed using half of $600,000 in surplus money for the schools, made the motion to file the request with the state. Councilor Andy Vargas, who also spearheaded an effort on social media to encourage spending more at Tilton, seconded the motion. Fiorentini said the extra money, identified by LePage in an unused account earlier this year, will be added to the city’s reserve for possible use next year.
Having served on the committee that built four new schools during the 1990s, Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua warned the state school building program takes time.
“We need to begin the planning process today so we can evaluate where we are with the Mount Washington quadrant and, if appropriate as I believe we will find, begin the application process with the state,” Bevilaqua said.
The unscheduled school discussion came as councilors approved a $178.3 million city operating budget. The budget, which does not include water and sewer, is expected to result in a smaller increase in property tax bills when the tax rate is set during the fall.
Fiorentini said the state is facing a potential $1-billion-dollar deficit which could hurt the city.
“That money has to come from somewhere…when they go down, we go down. When they cut, we bleed,” he said. There are other pressures on the economy, he added, such as the fallout from Great Britain voting to exit the European Union. “There are storm clouds on the horizon.”
Council President John A. Michitson, however, said he is worried the city taxing below the limits of Proposition 2 ½ could cost the city extra money it receives from the state. Rep. Brian S. Dempsey could have trouble delivering $2.4 million annually to help pay the debt of the former Hale Hospital, Michitson explained, if his colleagues believe the city is not doing enough to help itself.
While acknowledging the city is spending 5 percent more on schools, Vargas questioned whether the city is improving its low statewide ranking in the average amount per student the city spends. Fiorentini said spending-per-student figures Vargas has been using on social media are three years’ old.
The mayor said Haverhill’s percentage increase in school spending this year is more than Methuen, Taunton, Lawrence and Worcester. He said the city is spending $4.7 million more than the state minimum on its schools while Methuen is $5 million below. The new school budget includes paying for three additional health instructors, as LePage has been requesting for two years, plus an additional nurse and three “interventionists” to help students having difficulty with math and reading, Fiorentini said.
Summarizing the budget, Councilor William J. Macek said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day and Haverhill won’t be rebuilt in a day.”