Battle Brewing Over New Whittier Building

Tuesday October 24, 2023

A rendering of the proposed new Whittier Vocational Technical High School

REGIONAL – A battle that may pit the residents of Haverhill against 10 other North Shore cities and towns is erupting over who will pay for the proposed new building for the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School.
Whittier Supt. Maureen Lynch is making the rounds of cities and towns from Salisbury to Ipswich, Georgetown to Merrimac to promote the proposed new high school building in Haverhill that is projected to cost a total of $460 million, before financing costs.
The 11-munipalities in the district would share a proposed $279 million after the Massachusetts School Building Authority reimburses Whittier 62.66 percent of the eligible costs. That does not include debt financing over the 30-year payout.
Projections are that the new school will increase the average household’s property taxes from a low of $153 per year for an average home in Salisbury to a high of $395 in Georgetown, according to Whittier estimates.
Whittier, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, educates almost 1,300 students in 23 disciplines that include arts and communication, construction, manufacturing, service, technology and transportation.
The preferred design for the new school is a three-story, W-shaped building on the current campus. Vocational, specialty, support and community programs would be on the first two floors and academic classes on the third floor. The campus would be reimagined with athletic fields, tennis and basketball courts and baseball/softball fields. The current stadium would remain.
The current building at 115 Amesbury Line Rd in Haverhill faces costly maintenance and structural challenges and is no longer equipped to provide a 21st century technical education. To renovate the 50-year-old building would cost more than a new building, according to the Whittier Building Committee.
Major deficiencies in the existing building include a lack of sprinklers, accessibility issues, lack of lighting in some areas, no loading access for shops and a shortage of classroom space.
The voters in Amesbury, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Ipswich, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury will vote Jan. 23 on the proposal.
The challenge for most of the towns and cities is that the new building will be decided by a simple majority of voters districtwide, not by a majority of the cities and towns. Being held in January on a one-issue ballot, the election is likely to draw a low voter turnout. In addition, early voting and mail-in voting will not be allowed for this election.
The election is expected to be dominated by Haverhill, which has 67,361 residents, while the total population of the 10 other cities and towns in the district is 93,446. Haverhill sends 866 students, the largest number of students from any town. Its students make up 68 percent of Whittier’s student population.
“I’m going to be very much in favor of a new school building,” Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini was quoted.
Haverhill will pay the most of any municipality in the district, according to school officials. That means the homeowners of a $450,000 home in Haverhill would pay an additional $301 a year for 34 years.
Rowley SelectBoard Chair Clifford Pierce last week described the situation Rowley and other cities and towns face in paying for the new building as “a nightmare.”
The Rowley SelectBoard voted to fight the districtwide vote by building a coalition of other impacted towns and to take the issue to state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Rep. Kristin Kassner, D-Beverly.
Pierce said the funding formula should be based on the number of students each city or town sends to Whittier. The current formula assesses each municipality according to its percentage of school-aged children compared to the total number of school-aged children in the entire Whittier district
But making that change is unlikely, Pierce said, because the charter requires that all 11 towns and cities to vote for the formula change.
Whittier is planning public forums in each city and town over the next several months for the community to offer feedback and ask questions.
Amesbury, which sends 126 students to Whittier, will host an informational session from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Council on Aging, 68 Elm St. Its share of the total cost was estimated at 9.74 percent.
Georgetown will hold its information session from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 1 at the Georgetown Peabody Library, 2 Maple St.
Groveland, where the owners of an average house, valued at $575,000, would pay $299 more per year for 34 years. will hold an informational session from 10 a.m. to noon on Nov. 18 at the Langley-Adams Public Library, 185 Main St.
In Ipswich, which sends 28 students to Whittier, the project’s average annual tax impact on a homeowner, whose property is valued at $750,000, would be $267 per year through 2058. It will hold an informational session from 6 to 7:45 p.m., on Nov. 20, at the Ipswich Public Library, 25 N. Main St.
Merrimac will hold an information session from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Merrimac Public Library, 86 W. Main St.
Newbury will have a presentation from Whittier to the SelectBoard from 6 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 14 at Town Hall, 12 Kent Way and from 5 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 20 at the Newbury Public Library, 0 Lunt St. Byfield.
Newburyport, which sends 29 students to Whittier, will pay almost $70 million over 30 years for the new building. Its informational session will be held at 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 27 at the Senior Center, 331 High St.
Rowley, which sends 23 students to Whittier, will hold an information session from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 30 at the Rowley Public Library, 141 Main St.
Salisbury, which sends 52 students to Whittier, will have an informational session from 6 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 5 at the Salisbury Public Library, 17 Elm St.
West Newbury will hold its information session from 6 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 6 at Town Hall, 381 Main St.
Those interested in attending a meeting are asked to sign up on the Whittier Tech Building Project website,

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