By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — In a victory described as a “landslide,” voters participating in Tuesday’s Special Election on the fate of a new school to replace the 54-year-old Northeast Regional Metropolitan Vocational School in Wakefield supported the measure by nearly 83%.
North Reading voters led the way with the highest percentage of voters among the 12 member communities, approving of the new school plan at 94.12%.
Locally, a total of 867 voters cast a ballot (7.49%) with 816 voting in favor of the new school while 51 were opposed. No blanks were cast. By precinct, the breakdown was as follows: Precinct 1, 223 to 10; Precinct 2, 156 to 11; Precinct 3, 205 to 20; and Precinct 4, 232 to 10.
North Reading’s approval of the project was not a complete surprise as the voters at October Town Meeting had previously expressed their complete support for the project. Ten out of the 12 communities ultimately approved the project by vote of their respective legislative bodies, either city councils or town meetings, but under state law the approval had to be unanimous. Because it wasn’t, the Special Election was called by the NEMT School Committee after both the Chelsea City Council and the Saugus Town Meeting, which is a representative town meeting, voted it down.
In the Special Election, Saugus voters approved of the project 921 to 547 (62.74%). Chelsea was the only community to vote against it. With just 283 voters participating, 109 voted in favor and 174 voted against (38.52% approval).
A total of 9,036 votes were cast throughout the 12 communities with 7,469 votes in favor of the $317 million project and 1,567 opposed to it.
“We’re not letting our foot off the gas!”
Contacted by phone Tuesday night after learning the project was approved by a nearly 83 percent majority among the 12 communities that send students to his school, elated Northeast Metro Tech Superintendent Dave DiBarri told the Transcript: “Across the board it was a complete landslide! I’m so excited.”
Now that this hurdle is behind the Northeast Metro Tech School Committee and its School Building Committee, DiBarri was asked about the next step in the process. “The next step is we finish up the design, which is going to take a little while. It will probably take six to eight months, and then we start clearing the way for the project,” he said.
DiBarri continued, “We had our project management company with us (Tuesday) and they said we’re going to give you a call first thing in the morning. We got to get moving right away. Obviously as the inflation and escalation (in materials and labor) is rising at an unprecedented level we need to get ahead of it before the costs keep going up. We’re excited. We’re not letting our foot off the gas!”
The construction contract had previously been awarded to Gilbane, Inc.
“We brought in Gilbane early on,” DiBarri said. “One of the benefits of having a construction company early on is they can be part of the design process to make sure that they’re able to build what the architects are proposing rather than wait until after the bid goes out.”
NEMT School Committee “grateful”
Northeast Metro Tech has been working on the current project for several years. If the vote had failed, the NEMT School Committee and its Building Committee would have had to return to ground zero and re-start the process of gaining the approval of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which has approved the largest grant in its history for this project with a reimbursement level of 76.84% of eligible costs. This grant pares down the total cost to about $176 million to be divided among the 12 sending communities based on the number of students they send. It will be bonded over 30 years, with repayment beginning in 2026.
This was not an override vote. North Reading plans to absorb the cost into its operating budget. It would work out to about $270,000 per year over 30 years based on current enrollment.
North Reading currently sends 37 students to the school. The new facility will expand NEMT’s technical and trade school options from 16 to 19, and will expand enrollment from 1,300 students to 1,600 students to address the chronic backlog of 300 waitlisted students. This potentially could open up spots for additional North Reading students to apply for admission.
“We are deeply grateful to the voters in our 12 sending communities for their participation in today’s vote, their collective support of a new school building, and for securing a vision for a 21st-century career technical education that will position our students for success after graduation,” DiBarri said in a statement released on behalf of the Northeast Metro Tech School Committee.
DiBarri continued, “Input from the Northeast community has been an integral part of this process. School officials, construction experts, and School Committee and Building Committee members from all 12 communities worked diligently to create a proposal that reflects that community feedback, and respects the cost to taxpayers.”
The superintendent added, “Our work is just beginning. We welcome community feedback as we refine this project, and look forward to the day we celebrate a new chapter for Northeast Metro Tech.”