Despite an appearance by Northeast Metropolitan Regional Technical High School Superintendent David DiBarri at a subcommittee meeting Monday night, the City Council unanimously voted to not authorize the payment of any share of the cost of a new $317 million high school for the vocational district.
Several weeks ago, City Manager Thomas Ambrosino recommended the council not approve the borrowing and debt authorized by the vocational district vote in September, noting that the burden would be too much for city finances and taxpayers. Because the 238 students currently attending the vocational high school is second only to Revere, the city will end up paying the second highest annual assessment to pay for the new building, under the state formula, or about $1.9 million per year over the course of 30 years.
The no vote by the City Council is likely to trigger a district-wide vote from the 13 communities on the new high school building project. When asked by District 5 Councillor Judith Garcia if there are any plans in place for Chelsea to leave the Northeast district, Ambrosino said it hasn’t reached that point yet.
“I have not given a thought to withdrawal, that is not going to be triggered by this vote,” said Ambrosino, rather, it would lead to the district-wide vote.
“If the (district) vote passes, we’ll have to come up with this money somehow, and as difficult a financial predicament that will put us in, we will have no choice but to do that,” he said. “If the vote fails, I think the district will have to get together because it would mean the majority of the residents of the whole district did not want this school to move forward and they would have to come up with a different approach. Maybe it is a less expensive new building, maybe it is something else.”
DiBarri said that the issue of the funding formula is something that has only been recently raised by Chelsea officials. Under the formula, the percentage the 12 communities in the district pay is determined strictly by enrollment.
“This started for me six years ago, and that’s why it’s amazing for me to hear tonight for the first time in six years that issue is actually the formula,” said DiBarri. “Had the (city) manager told me six years ago, as well as the other communities involved, that the issue was the way that the percentages are divided up, I would have joined him at the State House, at the MSBA (school building authority), at the Department of Education, and I would have fought the fight with you all, because I didn’t create the formula. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with in the formula.
“When I started my position, I vowed to do anything I could to get this school built for the kids of Chelsea and Revere.”
Charles Lyons, of Northeast Vocational consultant Lyons Consulting, said there is nothing onerous or unfair in either state law or regional agreements governing how capital costs are assessed to member communities.
“Due to the municipal makeup in Northeast Metropolitan’s district – and quality performance done already by its state legislative delegation – most notably by former House Speaker Bob DeLeo-the MSBA grant award of $141 million is the largest for a school project in state history,” stated Lyons. “The total project construction cost of $317 million is comparative of per pupil project cost spent to build both Minuteman Technical in Lexington and Cape Cod Technical in Harwich. School construction costs in Massachusetts have increased nearly 130 percent since 2012- due to less vocational tradespersons available and being trained, and the increase in the cost of construction materials.”
But Chelsea Superintendent of Schools Dr. Almi Abeyta said there is a difference between equity and equality in how Chelsea will be assessed for the new building.
“There’s really not mention of equity here, and in many cases, equity does not mean equal,” said Abeyta. “The poorest community will be taxed the most, and that’s where I have a fundamental problem.”