MIDDLESEX - With about $141 in financial assistance from the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) at stake, the future of a new $317 million Northeast Metropolitan Technical High School could very well rest on the outcome of several key municipal meetings over the next 10 days.
At the outset of this month, Town Meeting members in Stoneham and North Reading both agreed to commit their communities to the construction of a new 390,000 square foot building at the 60-acre Wakefield vocational school grounds off of Hemlock Road.
Both votes were taken as the MSBA, which in August agreed to cover roughly 76 percent of eligible costs for the new high school, gave the regional district until Dec. 23 to appropriate the needed funding for the project.
“Thank you to Town Meeting voters in North Reading and Stoneham for their overwhelming backing of the school building project, and to the town officials who have supported this,” Northeast Metro Tech Superintendent David DiBarri said of the recent votes of support. “These Town Meeting votes validate the need for a new building and the countless hours the Building Committee has spent developing the best and most cost-effective project possible."
“The new school will feature 21st-century learning environments, improved Individualized Education Program (IEP) accommodations, state-of-the-art shop space, expanded program offerings, a new primary access roadway from Farm Street to reduce traffic congestion, a full-size gym, a 750-seat auditorium, outdoor space for learning and a new cafeteria,” vocational school officials added in a recent prepared statement about the project.
Stoneham and North Reading will reportedly be required to contribute roughly $11 million and $4.68 million, respectively, towards the construction project.
With the new four-story high school’s projected costs based upon student enrollment figures, municipal leaders in other area communities like Winchester, Reading, and Melrose are also likely to okay the construction of the new school by default - or without even voting on the matter.
For example, Winchester, which is only sending 11 students to the vocational school this year, will be asked to pay just $1.51 million for the state-of-the-art facility. Meanwhile, Melrose and Reading, which both send around 35 students to Northeast Metro Tech, will contribute between $4.5 to $4.7 million each for the undertaking.
However, the early and easy victories in Stoneham and North Reading are already being matched by pushback from officials in the City of Chelsea, who say their less affluent population cannot afford the approximate $32.8 million price-tag being assessed to the gateway community for the project.
During a meeting in Chelsea City Hall earlier this month, various city councilors insisted the proposed construction assessment threatened to consume almost the entirety of the city’s excess tax levy capacity under Proposition 2 and 1/2.
A tax reform passed in the 1980, proposition 2 and 1/2 prevents cities and towns from raising its tax levy by more than 2.5 percent from year to year. The year-to-year real-estate tax bill cap excludes new growth realized from revenues generated for the first time by new developments.
“The annual cost to the City of Chelsea over the next 30 years is almost $1.9 million. This is over and above the $1.2 million we already pay annually to Northeast to educate [around 238 students there],” vented frustrated Chelsea City Councilor at-Large Leo Robinson during a meeting on Oct. 4.
“This can easily pass in a back-door room. It could happen quietly and right behind our backs. It could cause an economic crisis in our community,” later worried City Councilor Judith Garcia.
On Monday, Oct. 18, Northeast Metro Tech’s superintendent and the new school’s design team will attempt to sell the $317 million high school to hesitant Chelsea officials and further clarify the approval process around the building project.
Already, Chelsea’s City Council has forwarded to a subcommittee for consideration a proposed order to reject the new vocational school assessment.
If the funding request is denied by Chelsea or any other sending community, the matter would go to the ballot box in the form of a referendum question to be decided by voters of all 12 member communities. That special election would tentatively occur in early December.
In order to pass at the ballot, at least 50 percent plus 1 voter of the entire school district’s electorate would need to okay the funding request.
Helping Northeast Metro Tech officials sell the project, former Shawsheen Technical High School superintendent Charlie Lyons boasted earlier this month that the Wakefield school serves perhaps the most culturally and economically diverse student body in the entire state.
And while celebrating that diversity, Lyons and other Northeast Metro Tech officials have also acknowledged those same differences can create quite the financial strain on less affluent member communities come budget time.
“The impact will be insignificant compared to what six other communities will be paying,” Lyons remarked during the Special Town Meeting in Stoneham on Oct. 4. “Three of our communities - Chelsea, Revere, and Malden - comprise 49 percent of the student population.”
“Culturally, we have students from all types of varied backgrounds who go to school together every day. [Northeast] also has the largest waiting list in the state. This year, about 880 freshmen applied for 340 seats,” Lyons later said.
With Northeast more popular than ever, the new high school will be sized to accommodate 1,600 pupils. Currently, there are 1,281 students enrolled in the vocational high school.
Other big meetings ahead
This week, Malden’s City Council is also scheduled to meet with DiBarri to consider the regional school district’s request for $20.95 million over the next 30 years for the project.
In other high-profile meetings, the Town of Saugus will also host a special Town Meeting early next week to decide whether the community should agree to its proposed $23.4 million share of the costs.
Saugus, which presently sends 170 students to the Wakefield vocational school, would be responsible for approximately $1.3 million annually for the next 30-years under the present bonding plan for the project. Some officials in the community, pointing out that citizens are already shouldering tax increases from the city’s new middle/high school, have questioned whether residents can simultaneously afford a new Northeast Metro Tech facility.
So far, there is no word on when city officials in Revere, which sends more students to Northeast than any other member community, plan to address the Northeast Vocational School funding request. However, given that Revere is also considering its own high school project in the immediate future, there is likely to be some community pushback regarding the proposed $34.18 million contribution being sought for the vocational facility.
There are also a handful of cities and towns in The Middlesex East’s immediate coverage area which are likely to okay the new school, even though they face a higher assessment than more affluent communities like Melrose, Reading, and Winchester.
For example, in Woburn, where 114 local students are being sent to the Wakefield vocational school this year, city officials made arrangements a number of years ago to establish a special stabilization account to begin saving for the city’s estimated $15.71 million share of the new school.
With Woburn sitting on millions of dollars in reserves thanks to careful planning, city Mayor Scott Galvin and members of Woburn’s City Council have suggested the community will likely be able to afford the annual assessment within the confines of the existing budget.
As is the case in Woburn, officials in Stoneham earlier this month also predicted the community will be able to absorb within existing budget parameters the town’s estimated $638,000 annual share of the vocational school assessment.
According to Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan, with 80 students enrolled this year at Northeast Metro Tech, the community will eventually be asked to pay $11 million during the length of Northeast’s 30-year borrowing term.
Because Stoneham’s unfunded pension system liability is scheduled to drop substantially beginning in FY’26, Sheehan and other officials believe the town’s share can be funded by reallocating money from that existing line-item.
“What we’re proposing is that the town has a plan to pay for it within proposition 2 and 1/2. So we’d be able to take this on within our levy limit,” Sheehan explained during a Special Town Meeting in Stoneham High School.
Following a multi-year feasibility study, the MSBA’s Board of Directors voted in August to partner with Northeast Metro Tech officials on the proposed new school.
And with the new four-story high school on course to become the most expensive vocational school project in the state agency’s history, that help is considered pivotal to keeping the project affordable.
Without the state aid, local construction assessments would increase quite dramatically. For example, without the MSBA’s contribution, Stoneham’s total share for the project would nearly double to $19.8 million, while Chelsea’s assessment would climb to around $59 million.
The MSBA’s pledge, made possible thanks to special legislation championed by former Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), will lapse at the end of this year.
Winthrop, which is also part of Northeast and sends 57 teens to the school, is being asked to pay $7.85 million for the new school.