By Donna Capodelupo
The director of Haverhill's special education programs is not sold on an idea to move more than 100 students into the city-owned Bartlett School, saying they would "lose a lot."
Maury Covino, principal of the TEACH program and director of Haverhill's Special Education Department, said School Committee member Joe Bevilaqua's idea to move his program and the Haverhill Alternative School into Bartlett School would likely fail to achieve Bevilaqua's aim of saving the city money and would eliminate necessary components of both programs.
"The Bartlett School, as it exists, is not an optimal setting," Covino said.
The TEACH and Alternative School programs share the St. James School on Primrose Street. Covino said each pays half the annual $229,000 rent to the Archdiocese of Boston, which owns the school as part of St. James Parish. Bevilaqua suggested during a recent School Committee meeting that Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan look into using the Bartlett — recently vacated by the Hill View Montessori Public Charter School — to save the cost of the St. James lease.
Mayor James Fiorentini suggested selling the building before it became an eyesore or worse in its Washington Street neighborhood.
The Alternative School provides an education to roughly 50 middle and high school students who have emotional and behavioral needs not met in the city's other schools, said its principal, John DePolo.
The TEACH program is designed to educate a more seriously disabled population that includes about 55 children of all ages with physical and intellectual challenges, Covino said.
Between the two programs, out-of-district placements for which the city receives tuition are sufficient to cover the full cost of the lease, Covino said.
DePolo said his program alone brings $211,000 in out-of-district tuition, exceeding his nearly $165,000 rent bill.
Other expenses, such as staffing and utilities, are paid by the city, Covino said.
But because they don't own the building, they have not had to shoulder the cost of building upgrades, such as a new roof installed about a year ago, DePolo said, and paid for by the church.
Any savings realized by seeking a new home for the program would be at least two years away, Covino said.
The city recently extended its lease of the St. James School for another two years, through the end of the school year in 2012.
But it is the physical attributes, or lack of them, in the century-old Bartlett School that are the biggest drawback, DePolo and Covino said.
The same things that caused the Hill View Montessori School to seek a new home — lack of a cafeteria, gym or library and inadequate outdoor space — would force the elimination of some of the most worthwhile services offered by the two programs.
The school cafeteria is used every day by both programs.
The Alternative School uses it as part of a culinary arts education program, preparing students for jobs in the food service industry.
Students prepare the lunch every day for their classmates and some staff. DePolo said he buys the $3 lunch every day.
Covino said TEACH students use the cafeteria, too. Some are preparing for jobs while others are learning how they might prepare meals when living on their own.
The gymnasium and outdoor athletic fields — enclosed by a chainlink fence — are vital to the success of the Alternative School, Covino said.
Students in that program especially need physical activity to help them focus during more sedentary lessons.
DePolo said the size of the St. James School allowed the Alternative School to create a woodshop complete with a venting system and a large science lab, both of which would be difficult if not impossible to recreate in the Bartlett School.
Other drawbacks are lack of handicap accessibility that would have to be addressed before the school could receive a license to operate from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the location of student restrooms only in the lowest of the school's three floors.
The expense of installing new handicap-accessible bathrooms and elevators in the Bartlett School would be prohibitive, Covino said.
If the special education programs were to be interested in seeking a new home, Covino said he would advocate the path that Hill View Montessori took.
"I like what the Montessori school did, looking at industrial space. An industrial space with playing fields nearby would be ideal," he said.
Meanwhile, DePolo said he is happy at St. James and believes the sense of continuity that has come with the long-term lease of the building has been good for his students.
As part of their art studies, students each year paint murals on the walls of the school. Each year's designs are added to those of previous students.
"It gives them a sense of belonging. When they walk through the building, they see their work beside that of students in previous years."
DePolo credited a "great art teacher," Neil Wilkins, for working with the students on the murals. Buchanan, the schools superintendent, has said Andover Superintendent Claudia Bach has expressed possible interest in renting the Bartlett School for overflow of some programs from her district.
Administrators from Andover were expected to visit recently to tour the building.