HAVERHILL — Voters across Whittier Tech’s 11 sending communities rejected a plan to build a new school, sending Whittier back to the drawing board to come up with an alternate plan for a less costly school or possibly seek a renovation and code upgrade project.
Voters went to the polls Tuesday for a special election that featured a single ballot question asking whether to authorize the borrowing of $444.6 million to pay the costs of designing, constructing, equipping and furnishing a new school that would have a useful life of at least 50 years.
Of the 21,060 votes cast across all 11 communities, the plan received 5,644 yes votes, or about 27% of all votes cast, and 15,416 no votes, or about 73% of all votes cast. All votes were unofficial at the time of this report.
A simple majority of votes, 50% plus one vote, would have been needed to enable the new building project to move forward with each community having to decide how to fund its share of the project.
A majority of Haverhill voters, 2,628, voted to support the plan while 1,906 voted in opposition. Haverhill was the only community to vote in support of the plan.
In Newburyport, residents voted 4,401 to 652 reject the proposal. In Ipswich, voters crushed the plan, 1,628 to 188.
LaNita Dykes, spokesperson for the Yes for Whittier municipal ballot initiative campaign, reacted to the vote, saying it was unfortunate that voters chose what will be the longer and more costly process of a renovation and code upgrade to the current Whittier instead of building a new school.
“We want to thank the many volunteers and supporters who gave their time and energy to the campaign,” she said. “The results were not what we wanted, but we will never stop fighting for the Whittier community that deserves proper fire protection and a school without raw sewage backing into it.”
Whittier officials told voters that about $177 million of the cost of a new school would be offset by reimbursement through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a MassSave rebate, and a federal incentive payment through the federal Inflation Reduction Act. They estimated the district’s share for a new building would be $267.5 million.
Whittier officials have said that if the vote failed, the reimbursement funding from the MSBA, Mass Save and the federal incentive payment would be forfeited and the 11 cities and towns in Whittier’s district would be responsible for the full cost of any upgrades that would be required by law. They said a renovation and code upgrade is estimated to cost $350.2 million, or about $82 million more than a new school.
If the ballot question were approved, the owner of the average single-family home of $501,341 in Haverhill would have been charged an additional annual property tax of $297 a year for the 34-year life of the loan
Whittier has been collaborating with the MSBA since 2016 to explore options for a new school project. Whittier officials said the building, opened in 1973, faces costly maintenance and structural challenges, including the replacement of its wastewater system, along with required code upgrades, and no longer meets the needs of a 21st century career technical education.
Looking to convince voters
In the weeks leading up to the special election, the project’s supporters and opponents reached out to voters in various ways.
The Yes for Whittier municipal ballot initiative committee, which was funded by Whittier’s selected contractor, Consigli, and Methuen-based Laborers Union Local 175, ran a multipronged campaign that included mailings, street signs and text messages telling voters that a yes vote would qualify Whittier for reimbursement, rebates and incentives and that construction would take three years to complete.
The committee said a no vote would result in the need to make necessary repairs and bring the building up to current code at a cost of $350 million with no reimbursement, rebates or incentives and that it would take 10 years to complete.
One opposition group, Whittier Taxpayers for Truth, which primarily posted its concerns on social media, stated it was seeking transparency, particularly when it comes to a code upgrade costing $350 million over 41 years of bond payments.
“In my opinion, they artificially inflated the code upgrades,” said Patrick Bull of Haverhill, who launched the campaign in what he said is his quest for truth. “Just tell me what upgrades are needed to become ADA compliant.”
Newburyport Mayor Sean Reardon, a vocal critic of Whittier’s plan, has said a no vote would give the 11 cities and towns, as well as Whittier, options to come together and problem-solve in a more “equitable, transparent and successful manner.”