A proposal to build a replacement Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School is on track to seek voters’ approval next month as the school overcame two efforts Wednesday to block it.
Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School Committee voted Wednesday night to formally ask voters across its 11-member cities and towns to approve plans Tuesday, Jan. 23. The decision came the same day as the Massachusetts School Building Authority agreed to advance a project scope and budget agreement. Progress toward building the estimated $445 million replacement survived both efforts led by Newburyport Mayor Sean Reardon to scuttle plans and efforts by Senate Minority Leader Bruce E. Tarr to delay the state’s vote.
“I would ask that you consider whether or not that 120 days does provide sufficient time for further communication to occur in light of the fact that you have in writing requests for that additional time from some of these member communities,” he said.
According to the Authority, letters of concern over the project, costs and the voting process came from Amesbury, Rowley, Georgetown, Newburyport, Salisbury and West Newbury.
While Tarr called the existing school inadequate, he said he favored a “suitable” replacement. In an email that afternoon to all Whittier Tech-member communities except Haverhill, Reardon said he is “hoping at the very least they move the vote until late March or April, but I think that is a long shot.”
Whittier Tech Superintendent Maureen Lynch, who has overseen public hearings following state protocols over the last several years, successfully convinced state officials to stay on the current schedule.
“We feel that delaying the project at this time will not be helpful in moving the project forward. We continue to want to collaborate with our mayors, town managers and selectmen and selectboards and we hope that moving forward we’ll have more collaboration.”
Haverhill Mayor-elect Melinda E. Barrett told the board she believes the effort to stall the vote is merely an attempt to change the historical funding formula among the sending communities. Reardon appeared to reinforce her point, emphasizing how few students Newburyport sends to Whittier compared to Haverhill.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to pit a lot of these smaller cities and towns—I mean, Haverhill is four times larger than the next community that feeds into Whittier. So, for all of us smaller guys, that really just means Whittier’s education and what they do and their mission—whether it be a new school or a renovation—we have been left out of the process,” he said.
Reardon’s position represents an irony of sorts. Nearly 40 years ago, Newburyport benefitted from a court ruling denying Haverhill voting rights on the Whittier Tech board proportional to its then-50% of the school population. Then, as now, Haverhill and Newburyport each have an equal two votes on the School Committee, while all other towns have one vote each. Then-Haverhill City Councilors Arthur J. Bower and George Dekeon argued Haverhill should have 50% of the vote if it must pay for 50% of the students. Now, Reardon argues, Newburyport sends only 29 students and shouldn’t have to foot a larger bill.
Responding to some of the concerns, Authority Executive Director Mary Pichetti said her agency will put in place its policy change last year that allows communities to apply any third-party grants, energy rebates, state and federal money to go towards their share. She warned, however, local opposition could kill the project altogether.
“If approval eventually does not come on the project, then we would likely be working with the superintendent and the district to remove their Statement of Interest, and none of us here want that to happen,” she said.
Expressions of support for the project came from Sens. Barry R. Finegold and Pavel M. Payano and Reps. Andy X. Vargas, Ryan M. Hamilton, Kristin E. Kassner and Adrianne Ramos to authorize building a $445 million replacement building.