With the project’s cost estimates ranging between $245 and $300 million, Northeast Metropolitan Technical High School officials’ ambitious proposal to erect a brand new three-story facility on a hillside opposite the existing vocational school might sound like a tough sell.
But according to Northeast Metro Tech. Superintendent David DiBarri, since the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) appears increasingly likely to agree to pick up nearly 80 percent of the tab, he believes that come next fall, he’ll be pitching an unheard of deal to the district’s 12 member communities.
“Right now, we’re at a 79 percent reimbursement rate that was guaranteed by the state. That expires in December of this year, so it’s really important we get this done,” said DiBarri in a recent interview with The Middlesex East. “We’re never going to get a better deal than this.”
Saying few can argue against the need to replace the tired 53-year-old building off of Hemlock Road in Wakefield near the Saugus line, longtime Northeast Metro Tech. School Committee member Robert McCarthy couldn’t agree more with DiBarri’s assessment.
According to the Reading resident, after spending the better part of the past decade pleading with the MSBA for help with a new school, he and other School Committee members like Stoneham’s Larry Means can hardly believe the project is finally nearing the end of the MSBA’s schematic design and budgeting phase.
“We’re in exciting times, I’ll tell you that,” McCarthy remarked in a lengthy interview this week. “I can’t tell you how excited I am as a School Committee member to have my handprint on something that could determine the course of vocational school education for the next 50 years…I mean, how big is that? It’s so significant.”
“We’re on the back stretch, so to speak. And I don’t think will be a hard sell, to be honest,” Means commented in a separate conversation about the proposed building project. “What you’ll have is all 12 communities sharing the remaining cost of 21 percent.”
According to Means and McCarthy, because the cost of the school project is also broken down by each member community’s student enrollment numbers, smaller sending districts like the Middlesex East communities of Reading, Stoneham, Winchester, and Woburn, and North Reading will be asked to contribute far less than larger population cities like Chelsea, Saugus, Malden, Winthrop, and Revere.
“It’s based on the population of students. So it’s not divided equally by 12, it’s calculated based on [enrollments],” Means explained. “Stoneham has roughly 70 students there between 9th and 12th grade. Other towns like Winchester will pay even less.”
“Some of the bigger communities that send a lot of kids here, it will cost them some more. [But the district’s portion of the project] will be amortized out 30 years…We’re committed to doing this properly,” later said McCarthy.
According to DiBarri, though district officials have been working with the MSBA since 2017 on the building project, he’s already started making the rounds to area cities and towns to remind area leaders about the recent flurry of activity involving the potential construction funding partnership.
The superintendent, who based on current project timelines hopes to ask cities and towns to back the building project late next fall, also explained the district won’t have to begin making payments until sometime in 2025 - after the new 383,000 square foot school opens its doors.
“Between September and November, I’ll be looking to get approvals from the 12 towns,” DiBarri explained. “We’ve already started some conversations so we don’t just end up knocking on people’s doors last minute asking for money…The first payment also wouldn’t be until 2025, so that gives our [member communities] another four years to come up with a capital plan.”
Preferred building plan
The exuberant banter about approaching each of the district’s member communities with a funding request next winter comes as Northeast Metro Tech officials are preparing to meet with MSBA’s Board of Directors this coming August to ask approval of their preferred site location and initial design plans for the new school.
Dubbing the building plan as Option C3, the proposed new school, standing three-stories tall and sized to house up to 1,600 pupils, would be erected on a hill that sits south of the existing vocational facility, which was first erected in 1968.
The present vocational school, which underwent its later major expansion in 1970, is today occupied by a student body of 1,270. It was built to accommodate a student body of 900.
With vocational school educations more popular than ever - the waiting list at Northeast generally totals around 400 would-be students in any given year - the new facility is being sized to meet that excess demand.
According to DiBarri and other school officials, other notable features of the building project would include:
• The clustering of academic classroom areas around vocational programs on each floor of the facility;
• The acquisition of new state-of-the-art equipment for traditional learning tracks like the automotive, carpentry, dental, STEM, and business technology sectors;
• The inclusion of space to expand programming into the biotech, and other health technology and medical services fields;
• and the addition of state-of-the-art media labs, a brand new auditorium space, a separate cafeteria, and several new polyturf athletic fields.
Besides allowing the student body to remain during construction on the expansive 43-acre campus near the popular Breakheart Reservation, the location of the new school will also facilitate the construction of a secondary access driveway that cuts into Farm Road by Saugus’ DPW building just over the Wakefield line.
That secondary access, in addition to helping mitigate traffic problems during the building project, will also go a long way towards cutting down on some of the traffic issues that presently plague the site during school arrival and dismissal times.
“They’ll be an entrance off of Main Street near the Saugus line. It’s a great idea, because if you’ve ever seen the traffic at Hemlock Road, it’s like coming out from Stoneham High School on Franklin Street. It’s tough,” said Means, who explained both access roads will tie into one another.
Presuming the MSBA advances the Northeast Vocational School project into the project funding phase next August, school officials will then begin work towards approving a project scope and budget with the state agency.
The MSBA, which has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars towards local school building projects across Massachusetts, will per that agreement settle upon a final construction budget for the undertaking. And though the state agency is certain to exclude certain design elements, such as any work pertaining to athletic field improvements or oversized auditoriums, the Northeast Vocational School will enjoy one of the highest reimbursement rates granted in recent memory.
That baseline 72 percent reimbursement rate is locked in thanks to legislation passed in 2017 under the watchful eye of former Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, whose hometown of Winthrop is part of Northeast’s regional school district.
By contrast, when officials from Lexington’s Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School got approved for MSBA funding back in 2016, the district’s reimbursement rate was set at 44.75 percent. Likewise, Stoneham Public School officials, who are also pursuing a potential MSBA partnership on a new high school, are eyeing a baseline 52 percent reimbursement for its proposed $173 million facility.
“The Town of Stoneham might even be able to include this [yearly funding commitment] in its annual budget, rather than go for a debt exclusion [like it will need to for Stoneham High],” said Means, who previously served as the town’s moderator.
Once the MSBA okays the project and scope agreement, the district will have 120 days to secure funding. That local approval process will begin with the Northeast School Committee, which will be tentatively asked to sanction the project in the middle of next fall. At that point, the regional school district’s 12 member communities will then be asked if they have any objections to that approval.
Should none launch a protest, the project will move ahead.
However, if one community dissents, voters from all 12 sending cities and towns will head to the ballot box to decide the matter once and for all.
Such a scenario unfolded for the Minuteman school building project back in 2016, when the Town of Belmont objected to the capital funding request. During a subsequent election in September of 2016, voters overwhelmingly okayed the construction project by a 70 percent margin.