N.E. Vocational School seeks funding for new campus

The Massachusetts School Building Authority is partnering with Northeast Metro Tech on a new school building project. Left to right: School Committee member Larry Means, School Committee member Judith Dyment, School Committee member Peter Rossetti, Principal Carla Scuzzarella, School Committee Chair Deborah Davis, Superintendent David DiBarri, School Committee member Robert McCarthy, Director of Finance Jay Picone, School Committee member Dawne Armistead and Joseph Papagni, President of Northeast Metro Tech's Teachers Association. (Courtesy Photo Northeast Metro Tech)

WAKEFIELD - Persistance pays.

A few days ago, Northeast Metropolitan Regional Technical High School officials, who a year earlier refused to give up hope of securing state funding for an ambitious $200 million rebuilding project at the Wakefield vocational facility, heralded news their 2017 application had been accepted by the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) for further study.

Twelve cities and towns are part of the Northeast Metro Tech district, including Middlesex East communities of Woburn, Stoneham, Winchester, Wakefield, and North Reading.

The existing Wakefield facility, parts of which date back to 1968, has not undergone a major renovation since it opened in 1970. Bordering Breakheart Reservation, a sprawling state park that runs through Wakefield and Saugus, the school property is comprised of some 42.73 acres.

"We're beyond excited for this opportunity to continue the process of building a new school," said Northeast School Committee Chairman Debra Davis, who represents the City of Woburn. "We typically have a waiting list of 400-to-600 students, and this new school will allow us to keep turning out the best vocational students in the state, and I dare say, in the country."

The recent invitation into the MSBA funding pipeline does not guarantee state financing, as the district will first have to conduct a feasibility study that examines the best options for addressing issues within the antiquated building.

However, Northeast officials have long contended the 240,138 square foot facility, which is now nearly a half-century old, has long outlived its useful life and should be replaced entirely.

To hammer home that argument, local officials, armed with a lengthy engineering or "pre-feasibility" study prepared in 2016 by architect Dore & Whittier, estimate a $57 million investment is needed just to bring the Hemlock Road building into compliance with modern building code standards.

"The maintenance staff is in crisis management mode for much of the school year, patching leaking and non-functional systems [and] jerry-rigging temporary fixes, which diverts resources away from a more strategic approach to building maintenance and lowers morale," reads one snippet from Northeast's 48-page application to the MSBA, which also references uninsulated walls, a failing roof, collapsing sewer lines, and air quality issues due to antiquated shop systems.

"Our existing building is always neat and clean, and we are proud of how it presents itself to the public, but its systems are truly crumbling," another portion of the 2017 submittal continues. "Every day we walk on eggshells: one major issue or breakdown and our [capital] money will be wiped out, and the possibility of classes being interrupted or the entire school being forced to close while facility issues are dealt with is an ever-present possibility for which we cannot plan."

Local officials have proposed building a new school, capable of housing up to 1,600 pupils, on the property over a 6-to-7 year period while keeping the current facility open.

According to Northeast Principal Dr. Carla Scuzzarella, the proposed building would address a host of academic issues

with the existing facility, where overcrowding is so severe the student body is being crammed into old vocational shops and other common spaces.

The 1970 structure, built to house no more than 900 pupils, presently accommodates 1,267 students. Meanwhile, an average of 325 enrollment applications are rejected each year due to space constraints.

"It would help tremendously," said Scuzzarella, referencing the plans to reduce a vocational school waiting list through the building project. "We cannot fit one more body in here."

"At the time this school was built, the academics was really a secondary piece. The classrooms are really small, and I only have one fully-equipped science lab. Half of our kids now go on to two-or-four year [colleges], so we want to be sure we can offer academic resources to support [a demographic that has changed drastically since 1970]."

Despite those constraints, over the past decade, Northeast Vocational School alumni have enjoyed immense success not only in the competitive and lucrative information technology, HVAC, and health industry fields, but also by enrolling into some of the country’s most prestigious colleges, such as MIT and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Northeast Metro Tech has also been listed as a Level 1 facility, a rating by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) that designates the Wakefield vocational school as one of the state’s best academic performers.

Building support

Just about a year ago, dejected central office administrators and regional School Committee members had received a quite different response to its 2016 MSBA filing, which ended up in the rejection pile alongside scores of other petitions from surrounding cities and towns.

A few weeks later, then first-year Northeast Metro Tech Superintendent David DiBarri, taking up the mantle of his predecessor, told the public he looked forward to submitting a new round of documentation to the MSBA.

Northeast's subsequent 2017 MSBA proposal, known as a statement-of-interest (SOI), was considered a long-shot by some, who noted the skyrocketing number of competing applications being sent to the MSBA each year.

Overall, the MSBA received close to 160 SOI's in 2017, only 15 of which were selected for further analysis earlier this month.

"We're thrilled to have our project accepted by the MSBA and are extremely thankful for this partnership," said DiBarri, upon learning that Northeast had beaten out so many other communities. "This new building project will allow us to meet the requirements of 21st century learning and provide our students with an updated space to excel in both academics and their technical areas of study."

Technically, it could take years before the MSBA formally agrees to partner with the regional high school on a building project, as even after determining whether to pursue a renovation or new building project, the state agency requires initial design documents, a project scope and budget agreement, and initial local funding approvals to be secured.

However, in a deviation from the normal process, made possible due to the intervention of prominent state legislators like Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and House Minority Leader Bradley Jones (R-North Reading), the state agency has already agreed it will reimburse the school district for a minimum of 72 percent of any construction costs.

That reimbursement breakdown is normally not officially decided until a project scope and funding agreement is finalized with the MSBA, though cities and towns generally have an advance idea of funding percentage ceilings.

Should that 72 percent rate remain unchanged - DiBarri and others confidently say it will climb higher - area communities will be responsible for approximately $56 million of the proposed $200 million school project.

Those costs would be mortgaged over a 30-year period, and each community’s assessment would be based upon its prior year vocational school enrollment at the time the project is okayed.

In an interview before the MSBA announcement, Northeast Metro Tech School Committee member Larry Means, who represents Stoneham on the regional board, contended the district would be foolish to decline the MSBA money, as otherwise, school officials must at a minimum spend at least that much money to address critical capital and building system deficiencies within the existing 1970 building.

"[We were told] if we didn’t get it this year, they would accept our new application and keep that 71.84 percent reimbursement rate. It’s a very cheap way of getting a new school for our district,” said Means in comments made after the last MSBA application was denied.

In reviewing recently approved school building projects, the 72 percent figure is significantly higher than average MSBA rates, which in recent years, rarely climb much higher than 55 percent.

As an example, the Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton, which is pursuing an $84.8 million building project, has been approved by the MSBA for a 55 percent reimbursement rate. Likewise, for the proposed Minuteman Regional High School building project in Lexington, which has an estimated $144.9 million price tag, the MSBA will cover roughly 44.75 percent of the construction budget.

In recent months, Northeast Metro Tech's School Committee has already been eyeing ways to make easier the difficult task of obtaining support from its 12 member communities for the undertaking.

This fall, local cities and towns were asked to okay the establishment of a special capital stabilization account, which Northeast administrators hope to fund on a regular basis in order to begin saving for the major school project.

By creating the fund now, school leaders can get a jump on the financing and thereby reduce the annual appropriation required down the road, when the MSBA seeks formal approval of any final project scope and budget agreement.

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