The vote for “the Voke” has led to a surprising twist

The existing Northeast Metro Vocational Technical High School on left and the existing Northeast Metro Tech Forest on right.

Selected site for the Northeast Vocational High School building draws opposition

A $317,422-million dollar plan to rebuild the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School sounded promising to many when first proposed. “The Voke” hadn’t been significantly renovated since it was built nearly 50 years ago. It was time for a rebuild with updated technology. 

However, the project has now sparked fierce opposition, even among those who voted in favor of it on Jan. 25, 2022. 

The controversy is not about rebuilding the Voke, but what would be sacrificed for the new construction. 

The 1/25/2022 ballot question approving the construction costs of $317,422,620 did not specify the location of the new building site other than to note the current school address of 100 Hemlock Drive. A low turnout of 9,043 residents voted on the issue of funding the new school building, with 7,471 in favor of rebuilding the Voke.

However, some voters from the communities served – Wakefield, Chelsea, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Stoneham, Winchester, Winthrop, and Woburn – were later surprised to learn of a detail not on the ballot.

The construction plan involves the partial destruction of the nearby Breakheart-Hill Forest, a cherished 13.5-acre spot known as home to some rare and endangered species with vernal pools and wetlands and a migratory forest for birds. The forested site is property owned by the school district – it was transferred from Breakheart Reservation to serve as a buffer between the Voke grounds and the reservation.

The excavation will involve a mass tree clearing and blasting operation, all at a considerable expense to towns in the Northeast Metro Tech District. Linda Ireland, a member of an advocacy group called Friends of NEMT Forest, told Neighborhood View that other options would’ve been better.  “Taxpayers are being asked to pay for the most illogical and costly plan,” she said. 

As late as January of 2022, some members of the NEMT Building Committee had believed the Voke would be rebuilt near its current building. The Boston Globe had reported in October 2022  that “The $317.4 million project involves replacing the existing school with a new and larger building, to be constructed on the current athletic fields on Northeast Metro Tech’s 30-acre campus in Wakefield.”

Also distressing to some voters was the new school’s design. From plans posted online, the rebuilt Voke would include over 100 concrete steps to ascend the 60-foot elevation, with a 735 foot ADA-compliant, yet potentially dangerous and uncovered handicap ramp. Opponents say there are other glaring design choices that seem hazardous for the disabled and entire student body. 

Eleanor Axelrod, who is not part of the Friends of NEMT Forest nonprofit but opposes the forested site, was blunt. “I worked with people with disabilities and feel the design is discriminatory,” she told Neighborhood View.

Proponents of the project say the site that includes Breakheart-Hill Forest was the only location suitable for the Voke’s ever-expanding student population. The NEMT building committee said that the other approved building site on the existing playing fields is not large enough to accommodate an increased enrollment to approximately 1600 students. Building in the forest, say proponents, would also allow school athletics to continue during construction.

As for damage to the forest, proponents say the activists are overreacting, and that the excavation will be moderate.

NEMT site plan of proposed construction. (From NEMT building website.) The new school building would replace 13.5 acres of the 28-acre forest that currently serves as a buffer between the campus and Breakheart Reservation.

The project’s origin dates back to 2016 with a pre-feasibility report that indicated building on the existing 32-acre campus would be the most cost-efficient. Up to the spring of 2021, the building discussion indicated a new Wakefield hockey arena would be built on the existing football field. The rink idea was eventually shelved once the NEMT plan couldn’t finance it. The list of options for the new school eventually came down to two – building on the existing athletic fields or the hilltop forested site, which is not part of the 32-acre campus. 

In February of 2021, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which oversees funding for the project, approved the site chosen by the NEMT building committee – the hilltop forested site. However, the MSBA noted that the other option also remained viable – building on the existing playing fields.

MSBA Board Meeting notes state that “building on the existing athletic fields also achieves the District’s educational program goals and would allow the existing school to remain in operation throughout construction of the new school with minimal disruption. However, these options were eliminated from further consideration because of existing site constraints including the undesirable disruption of the current athletic fields anticipated during construction.” 

MSBA asked the NEMT building committee to confirm that the committee realizes that sitework costs for the hilltop forested site are over 20% of the building cost – much higher than the 8% reimbursement cap of the MSBA grant.

Opponents charge that the new Voke plan barreled forward with a lack of community engagement and a stream of misleading information. According to Friends of NEMT Forest, whose members have attended school committee gatherings and town and city council summits, other options for the school  were downplayed in public meetings. Adding to the confusion, the MSBA’s approval of the forest site came only days after it had issued a press release saying the new school would be built “on the existing site.”

Opponents are concerned that the plan is proceeding without an environmental impact assessment. Other worries are the projected high costs of the building site excavation ($41.4 million dollars, of which only 8% is reimbursed by the state), likely cost overruns, projected cuts to school programs to meet the budget, the difficult accessibility, and the environmental costs of destroying a virgin forest. 

Linda Ireland pointing out mature forests, including White Oak trees of over 100 years old. Friends of the NEMT Forests gather every Sunday afternoon to take people for walks into the threatened forest. Photo by Naomi Kahn.

Opponents say even stormwater management is a potential problem since blasting plans include a water-filled ledge. “Excess water will have to be rerouted to the Saugus River during construction,” said Axelrod. “The residents of the Water Street area already deal with flooding.”

The Voke’s superintendent, David DiBarri, told Boston.com last November that many Wakefield residents harbor stereotypical and negative feelings about Voke students. According to. DiBarri, residents are banding with the environmental activists to mask their real concerns, namely their fear that the growing number of students from out of town will have an adverse effect on the area. 

However, opponents say this misrepresents their concerns.  

Meghan McDonough, a Melrose resident and a disability advocate who opposes the hilltop site, said,   “I am a retired tradesperson. Vocational schools are one of the greatest assets for our community.  Working class and also disabled kids can come out and make a living in a trade that can’t be outsourced. They can make a living wage without starting their careers laden in debt. It is important to invest in students and in the trades. We shouldn’t short change our students. New buildings should be positive long term investments.” 

Various school committee members didn’t respond to queries from Neighborhood View. DiBarri also declined an interview. He instead referred us to the project website

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection did not review the project due to it being under the Mass DEP threshold of land alteration for environmental review (13.7 acres).  However, the project was compartmentalized to fall under the threshold for environmental review and the acreage continues to increase.  

 “The misinformation and lack of public awareness are major issues,” said Ireland, of the Friends of the NEMT Forest. “We are paying for a project that the government agencies have failed to protect the area or inform the stakeholders. In January 2021, DCR were the first to be told of the hilltop building site. The DCR [Department of Conservation and Recreation] did not inform the Building Committee of the importance of this environmental gem.” 

Some members of the Friends of the NEMT Forest: Janet Cohen, Marion Browning (Malden), Jane Robie (Malden), Joy Pearson (Malden), and Debbie Mathewson at the Boston Public Library with a public comment to Governor Maura Healey during the WGBH “Boston Public Radio” broadcast.

As far as the NEMT building committee is concerned, the votes have been counted, plans are being approved, and the project is going forward. 

Friends of the NEMT Forest, along with some of the public are calling for the attention of legislators and city and town councilors. They say they are just getting started in what could be a long fight.

Research and reporting by Karen Buck. Final draft with assistance from Neighborhood View editorial team.

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