Despite councilors’ frustration over the lack of a comprehensive plan for improving the city’s aging school buildings, a majority of the board approved sending a statement of interest to the state School Building Authority seeking financial help to repair and renovate the Consentino School.
Superintendent James F. Scully urged councilors to approve the request in time for an April 6 submission deadline.
Even though councilors last year asked that the city investigate renovations or replacement of three schools — the Tilton and J.G. Whittier in addition to Consentino — Scully said the better course of action is to focus on one project at a time.
“The reality is we’re only going to get one project approved,” Scully said.
This is the second year that the city is seeking help with the Consentino School. Last year, the state rejected the proposal, due to a lack of available funding, Scully said.
The superintendent suggested city officials get together and look at Haverhill’s long-term financial picture before talking about renovating several schools.
”In the meantime, begin the process of seeing where the dollars are, rather than building people’s expectations,” Scully said.
Several councilors took issue with Scully’s message, saying the city has waited too long already to study school building needs and to make a plan to address them.
Councilor Colin F. LePage (pictured) said he would make a symbolic gesture by voting against the statement of interest. He said he was disappointed that the request is basically a copy of last year’s submission with no evidence of additional study or investigation.
“I don’t want us to be saying good words but kicking the can down the road,” LePage said.
Councilor Timothy J. Jordan also took issue with the repeated submission of the same document, as well as the lack of the opportunity to have input on the decision about which school to renovate first.
“I have a lot of problems with the timing of this and what we’re getting right now. We haven’t had a chance to vet this,” Jordan said. “Councilor LePage asked in January for a meeting to talk about prioritizing school projects. The mayor didn’t want to have the meeting. The same meeting was requested in 2016; it’s never happened.”
Scully said the most reasonable approach is to get the Consentino project approved, then have the city, schools, and treasurer sit down and put together a sensible financial plan.
Council President John A. Michitson suggested councilors make approval of the statement of interest contingent upon a meeting like the one Scully described. Councilor Melinda Barrett made the motion.
Scully asked the council to reject the amendment, saying the School Building Authority could read into the vote that the city is divided over the plan. He said the SBA looks at the minutes of all meetings involving the project.
Michitson stood his ground.
“I’ve only been waiting 20 years and I’ve heard every excuse; this is the chance to really do it,” Michitson said of the council-school committee meeting.
“I want it in the minutes that the city of haverhill is smart and we take strategic planning very seriously we want to make sure we move forward as of tonight with a plan to sit down and have the school committee and city council start working together on a long-range plan for facilities.”
Councilor William Macek argued against the stipulation, saying he doesn’t want to give the state any reason to reject the city’s proposal.
The motion ultimately failed, with Michitson, Barrett, LePage and Jordan outvoted by Vice President Thomas J. Sullivan and Councilors Joseph A. Bevilacqua, Mary Ellen Daly-O’Brien, Macek and Michael S. McGonagle.
However, a majority of the board did approve forming a small committee to begin talking about the future of municipal buildings, with special emphasis on school buildings.
But Mayor James J. Fiorentini told WHAV that the vote was unnecessary, because the committee councilors requested already exists.
“I was tired of City council and School Committee pointing fingers,” he said, when he proposed what became the Joint Facilities Committee about 20 years ago. It is comprised of two members of the City Council, two members of the School Committee, the facilities director and mayor.
Councilors also asked that the superintendent of schools sit on the committee.
“I don’t remember when committee met last. I can see why they forgot about it,” he said. “I’m happy to activate it again and get it going.”
The council’s vice president, while agreeing that advance planning has been sorely lacking, said he would support the statement of interest. The incentive is to provide more equal opportunities for modern facilities to students in every part of the city.
Sullivan said he’s heard parents say they wish their children could go to the new Hunking School.
“Every school is a great school, because schools are about more than buildings, but for equal educational opportunities, it shouldn’t matter what neighborhoods they live in and what school they go to,” Sullivan said.
The final vote on the Consentino project was 8-1, with LePage voting “reluctantly, no.”
The mayor said he was “thrilled” the council supported the school resolution.
“Consentino School is our top priority. This is the school that needs our attention. I spent a lot of time talking with the MSBA. They said they would only consider one school,” Fiorentini said.