Concerns Raised About Vocational School Project

Last year, the School Committee, City Council, and Chelsea voters opposed plans to build a new $317 million Northeast Metropolitan Technical Vocational High School in Wakefield.

The 12 member communities of the vocational school district voted on funding for the project. That vote was triggered by the Chelsea City Council’s vote not to support the funding of the project, stating it would place an unfair financial burden on the city.

While Chelsea voters were against the price tag for the project, it wasn’t enough to stop the project from moving forward with wide support from the other member communities.

At last week’s School Committee meeting, several speakers raised the potential of continued opposition to the planned new vocational school.

Washington Avenue resident Lee Farrington said she is part of a group of residents who have come together to publicly address what she said are many serious issues involved in the plan to build a new vocational high school in Wakefield. She said the group is advocating with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and the state’s environmental protection agency to review the school building plan so that a more cost effective and environmentally sensitive school can be built instead.

“A year ago, Chelsea voted against the $317 million cost,” said Farrington, “Unbeknownst to most people at the time of the vote, this high cost is because the school will be built on a rocky ledge in the middle of a forest 60 feet below the lower campus where the current school now sits. As pointed out in an earlier pre-feasibility study, this location is far from ideal, given the high cost of site preparation, including six months of blasting and rock crushing at a cost of $40 million.”

Northeast Vocational Superintendent David DiBarri has countered a number of arguments raised against the building plan, including the length of the blasting schedule and the suitability of the location.

DiBarri and district officials have also addressed the pre-feasibility study, which has been raised by Farrington and other opponents of the project.

“After failing to gain the support of the MSBA for several years, the District sought the assistance of D&W to help improve their MSBA Statement of Interest (SOI) which when accepted, begins the MSBA Funding Assistance process,” DiBarri stated. “The report is titled ‘Pre-feasibility Study: Existing Conditions Investigation and Educational Visioning Report’ and the purpose was just that of the title – a high level conditions assessment. Rudimentary sketches and ideas were put forth for locations that did not consider the new MSBA and DESE Chapter 70 required programs, which were not defined.

“The location noted by the opponents to the project would not accommodate the new school and required layout for shops and associated academic spaces,” DiBarri continued. “The location was also bound by larger environmental issues such as proximity to wetland, two rivers, and no access to an alternate driveway.”

In Wakefield, a number of residents, under the umbrella of the Friends of the NEMT Forest, have raised concerns about the use of the forest land on the building site.

At last week’s School Committee meeting, Farrington said the building plan as proposed also has safety concerns, with students and staff having to go back and forth up a series of zigzag steps on a steep hillside.

“The pre-feasibility study developed a plan to build on the playing field next to the current school,” said Farrington. “The building would be large enough to meet the educational requirements and would not destroy wetlands, which are 100 feet away. It would be a more common sense option that would preserve a pristine forest.”

Farrington urged the School Committee to contact the MSBA to reassess the plan for the new vocational high school, noting that the MSBA has been known to reverse decisions in the past.

Bob Brooks of Wakefield, who said he is an abutter to the project said the project could result in the loss of up to 2,000 trees, altering the tree canopy in the area forever.

Brooks noted that there were three designs considered by the school building committee, and that the option that was picked has the highest level of blasting and development, as well as the highest cost in roadwork and utilities.

“It was also noted that the accessibility from the school was less than ideal because it was on two platforms,” said Brooks.

Because the vocational school building issues were brought up during public speaking and were not on the School Committee agenda, committee member Roberto Jimenez Rivera said the committee could not speak directly to the issue. However, he did note that both the School Committee and the City Council supported a resolution against the project in general.

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