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Haverhill Gets Fire Safety List

Haverhill — The state fire marshal has given the Haverhill Cooperative School District a to-do list of requirements following the rejection of a warrant article by voters in March that would have paid for necessary fire safety improvements at the high school.

The $330,000 warrant article failed by just two votes. If it had passed, the money would have completed the final phase of fire safety upgrades that the school has undertaking during the past five years.

In 2008, the fire marshal told the district that Woodsville High School did not meet mandatory state safety and fire regulations and that the district needed to update the sprinkler and alarm systems, as well as add doors and walls to the stairways to prevent smoke from traveling through the building.

To date, the sprinkler and fire alarm systems have been updated.

SAU 23 Superintendent Bruce Labs said the fire marshal was kind to the school district.

“I was afraid he was going to close something down,” Labs said. “He’s not going to let up because there are kids in the building. As long as we have kids in there, he will insist that we get this done.”

The $330,000 warrant article would have paid for added doors and walls near stairways to trap smoke, as well as provide more routes for students to exit the building so they wouldn’t all be jammed into one stairway.

On May 3, the fire marshal met with Labs, the School Board and the fire chief and gave the district a “minimal” list that must be accomplished, all adding up to about $43,000. The district must add doors in the hallways of the first and second floors of the building to prevent smoke from traveling, and some electrical work must be done, Labs said. The district has enough money in trust funds to pay for the work, Labs said.

To date, the district has already spent $311,000 on fire safety upgrades, said Pat Amsden, financial manager for SAU 23.

Labs said the improvements need to be made before students return to school this fall, and he said he’d like to put the project out to bid soon.

But Labs guessed there will still be about a quarter of a million dollars more work to be done involving two wooden staircases. In the future, the district will be required to upgrade the staircases so they are no longer open.

“We thought the fire marshal was going to be much harder on us,” Labs said. “If we hadn’t shown good faith for the last two or three years, he might have been.”

The fire marshal has been flexible since 2008, Labs said. At first, the school was told that an outside staircase would need to be added to the building, which would have cost about $500,000. But the fire marshal worked with the school to eliminate the proposal from the plan, Labs said.

The School Board is also considering other building options, which could include consolidation of schools. The Haverhill Cooperative School District has a high school, a middle school and an elementary school.

At Town Meeting, newly elected School Board member John Rutherford presented a preliminary idea for school consolidation and told voters that there might be other options that would make the current high school building irrelevant.

School Board Chairman Richard Guy said yesterday that the board plans to form a committee made of community members charged with looking at the three schools and their future.

Guy also stressed that there is no plan for consolidation yet.

But a decision about the future of the buildings will have to be made soon because the fire marshal was clear that the rest of the safety issues must be addressed.

“If nothing will be done long range, then we need to spend serious money now on the schools we do have,” Guy said.