A plan to replace the existing Northeast Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield with a new facility recently cleared one major hurdle but now faces another.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority’s board Aug. 25 agreed to provide Northeast Metro Tech with $140.8 million to help fund the overall $317.4 million project. But for the plan to move forward, the district needs approval from its 12 member communities.
On Sept. 9, the Northeast School Committee voted to authorize borrowing for the project, which calls for demolishing the existing Hemlock Road building and replacing it with a new 390,000-square-foot structure on an adjacent section of the 60-acre campus.
By Nov. 9, each municipality must consider whether to approve the project, and hence its share of the costs — which are apportioned based on how many students each community sends to the school.
District officials said the project is vitally needed to address numerous facility needs with the existing 53-year-old building, and to allow the school to enroll more students. If it goes forward, it would mark the highest-priced vocational school building project to date in Massachusetts.
“When the school committee voted to approve the school, we acknowledged it was the most historic and important vote the school committee ever made,” said David DiBarri, the school’s superintendent-director. “Not only will it allow our students to learn in a facility that is modern and up-to-date, but it would also expand opportunities for so many students who would otherwise be left on the waiting list.”
Established in 1964, the 1,300-student school provides career programs in 16 fields ranging from automotive repair to culinary arts, and robotics and automation, along with academic courses. Its core communities are Chelsea, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester, Winthrop, and Woburn.
DiBarri said the existing 240,000 square-foot-building is overcrowded, does not have adequate resources for special needs students, and lacks “the types of spaces needed for the courses a 21st-century vocational institution should provide.” He also cited failing mechanical and electrical systems, and a building exterior in need of upgrading.
“We currently have a very old building and we are trying to offer new inventive things every day for our students, and we need to be able to have a top-notch facility and the tools to do that,” said Judy Dyment of North Reading, vice chair of the Northeast School Committee, adding that the project is also timely given the growing demand for skilled workers in the economy.
Noting that many communities have been building or planning new schools, she said vocational students “deserve the same.”
The proposed four-story building would offer the added space needed to expand the district’s enrollment to 1,600 students, reducing a waiting list which on average annually exceeds 300 students, DiBarri said.
The new building would be organized into small “learning communities” with career technical shops located in close proximity to academic classrooms. It also would feature a new 750-seat auditorium, and a 12,000-square-foot gym.
The design, created by Drummey Rosane Anderson, Architects, includes features to enhance safety during times of pandemic, including a “robust and sophisticated ventilation system,” expanded learning spaces, outdoor educational spaces, and a larger and upgraded nurses’ area, DiBarri said.
Given the significant grant the School Building Authority has awarded the project, DiBarri said he is “highly optimistic our cities and town will see this as an opportunity to act now despite the challenges for any new school.”
Communities can vote to either approve or reject the borrowing, or to take no action, which will signify their support. Depending on their finances, communities that agree to support the project may opt to seek voter approval of a debt exclusion — or a tax increase for the years it takes to pay the debt — to fund their share, but those ballot votes need not be taken prior to the Nov. 9 deadline, DiBarri said.
If the project moves forward, the new school would be targeted to open at the end of 2025 with the overall project completed by the next summer.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.