A proposed new $317 million high school for the Northeastern Metropolitan Regional Vocational School District in Wakefield could break the bank for Chelsea.
City Manager Thomas Ambrosino is urging the City Council to oppose the project, because the price tag for Chelsea is too high, with Chelsea’s share topping out at nearly $57 million over a 30-year period.
“I have alerted the City Council to this looming financial predicament involving the proposed new Northeast Metropolitan Vocational High School,” Ambrosino stated in a letter to the council. “The matter has now reached the point where the City of Chelsea must act.”
In August, the Massachusetts School Building Authority approved the final design for the school and awarded $141 million for its construction. In September, the Voke school committee voted to approve the project and proceed with construction.
Ambrosino said there is no dispute that the Voke needs a new school and that the current facility is inadequate, nor that it would benefit the more than 200 Chelsea students who attend the school.
“My objection to the project has nothing to do with its merits, which are unassailable,” Ambrosino stated. “My opposition is based on the cost and formula by which this cost will be apportioned among the member communities. Simply put, the project results in an annual cost to Chelsea that is unaffordable, and in my opinion, inequitable.”
Chelsea’s share of the debt service for the project will require annual payments of approximately $1.9 million, costing the average two-family homeowner in Chelsea more than $215 annually in taxes.
“Unfortunately, it is quite likely that, notwithstanding any opposition from Chelsea, this project will proceed, and Chelsea will be legally obligated to make these debt service payments,” stated Ambrosino.
The project would be put up to a district-wide vote, and given the lower cost to other communities and the popularity of the project, Ambrosino said it is likely that voters in the district will vote in favor of the school.
Despite the possibility of ending up on the losing end of a district-wide vote, Ambrosino recommends the council take a no vote on the project.
The council is scheduled to meet with Voke Superintendent David DiBarri to further discuss the issue at a subcommittee meeting on Monday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m.
“As much as it pains me to be opposed to educational improvements that might benefit some of our residents, my fiduciary obligation to the City compels me to recommend that we expressly oppose the construction of this new high school under the current financial conditions,” Ambrosino said.
Councillor-At-Large Leo Robinson said that he has also been wary and warned of the financial pressures Chelsea would face if a new Voke building was built.
Robinson said the city pays $1.2 million to educate its 200-plus students at the Voke, and would be faced with an additional $1.9 million payment annually on top of that.
“The city is only allowed to raise under Proposition 21/2 approximately $1.7 million in new property taxes per year, so this bill from Northeast will exceed that amount,” said Robinson. “That means for the next 30 years, there will be no new tax money available in Chelsea for any other projects or new spending.”
Both Robinson and District 5 Councillor Judith Garcia pointed out that the current formula determining the debt payments considers only the enrollments of the member communities.
“It is unacceptable that this could bring us to an economic crisis in this community,” said Garcia. “I really hope our community can join us in fighting against this because this absolutely is not the project we want to be supporting.”
Council President Roy Avellaneda said the council will further discuss its and the community’s options at the Oct. 18 subcommittee meeting.