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North

New-school vision finally taking form

After many years of waiting, area officials are celebrating the approaching start of a project to provide the region with a new vocational-agricultural high school.

This April or May, workers are expected to begin excavation work for the $133.8 million school, which is being built on the Essex Agricultural and Technical High School’s 166-acre campus on the Danvers-Middleton line. Construction will get underway around June.

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The 1,440-student school is being created through the merger of North Shore Technical High School in Middleton, and the state-owned Essex Agricultural, with the addition of part of Peabody Veteran Memorial High School’s vocational program.

“It’s going to offer a 21st-century state-of-the-art vocational, technical, agricultural education for the whole North Shore area,’’ said Dan O’Connell, superintendent of North Shore Technical, adding that the school could also provide space for expanded adult education.

Scheduled to open in September 2014, the school will feature the array of vocational and agricultural programs currently offered by the two schools, plus four new ones - in the biotechnology, plumbing, HVAC, and dental assistant fields - that are being introduced based on data showing there is a demand for jobs in those areas. In all, programs in 22 career areas will be offered, divided among four academies.

“It’s what’s been needed,’’ O’Connell said. “It’s something that’s been talked about I don’t know how many decades. Now it’s become reality.’’

In addition to realizing a longstanding vision of merging the two institutions into one comprehensive one, the project resolves the pressing need of both North Shore Technical and Essex Agricultural to upgrade their antiquated facilities.

The yet-to-be-named school will serve the newly created Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School District, which includes the 16 communities of the existing North Shore district and Peabody.

It will also serve students from outside the district in its agricultural programs (those students will not be able to take other courses).

The Massachusetts School Building Authority is funding $77.5 million of the project costs, and the state’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance is contributing another $21.1 million.

District communities are responsible for the remaining $35.2 million, but officials expect to defray about $4 million of that cost through the planned sale of the North Shore Technical property once the new school opens.

“It’s really exciting,’’ said Roger Bourgeois, superintendent of Essex Agricultural. “The financing is in place. The design is almost completed and it’s going out to bid shortly . . . It’s going to be a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility.’’

“It’s been a long time, but it’s a big project,’’ Bourgeois said, observing that factors such as the School Building Authority’s several-year moratorium on funding projects - which expired in 2007 - presented obstacles to the project, whose advocates have included the two schools, local officials, and state legislators.

A new district school committee, consisting of representatives from each of the 17 communities and three members appointed by state agricultural commissioner, will govern the new school and is overseeing the project.

The committee has selected Rhode Island-based Gilbane to serve as general contractor under a “construction manager at risk’’ process in which the contractor works with the architect on the design and then sets a guaranteed budget that it will not exceed.

The school will be housed primarily in a 328,000-square-foot building to be erected on a hay field on the north side of Route 62.

The new building will have dedicated spaces for the four academies, to be devoted to animal and plant sciences; construction technology; technology and services; and life and natural sciences.

Each academy will have classrooms, labs, shops, and its own teaching team. They will share such spaces as a gym, a media center, a main cafeteria, and two smaller dining areas.

The existing buildings on the north side, including Berry Hall, will be demolished, with only a few agricultural outbuildings retained.

Smith Hall, a building across the street, will house the school’s administrative offices and an assembly hall.

At least two of the three other buildings on that side of the street and a portion of Smith Hall will be available for rent for educational purposes.

Officials are considering using the fourth building - the alumni gym - for athletic and possibly theater activities.

The project also calls for construction of athletic fields on the north side of the road, and a new extended paddock area for the school’s farm animals.

O’Connell said the project will add to local traffic, but most of the impact would be limited to the start and end of the school day.

He said school officials and the architect are working with neighbors and local officials on possible ways to minimize it.

Representatives of the committee, Gilbane, and the architect, Design Partnership of Cambridge, have held one meeting with neighbors about the project and plan another one on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at Essex Agricultural.

“It’s an exciting event getting to this point,’’ said Danvers town manager Wayne P. Marquis, saying he was particularly gratified at the way 17 communities agreed to participate in the district and help fund the school.

“There certainly will be challenges because this is . . . new territory,’’ Marquis said of creating a regional district this size. “I look forward to getting the shovel in the ground and actually seeing it constructed in my hometown.’’

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