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Local activists and school officials in Wakefield are engaged in a bitter fight over the chosen location for a new regional vocational school.
Friends of NEMT Forest say that while Northeast Metro Tech (NEMT), aka The Voke, is in dire need of a new school building, the location selected for the new school is unacceptable and a different location should be chosen.
They argue building in the chosen location would cause heavy damage to the surrounding forest and its ecosystem, in addition to a plethora of other problems. They also feel school officials’ communication about the project has been shoddy.
But if you ask school officials, no other building site is big enough to house a school that will allow them to accept more students and shrink their waitlist. They also feel they have done more than their part to share information about the school and are doing their best to appease neighbors’ concerns.
The opposition, the school’s superintendent says, is fueled by abutters who dislike the idea of having low-income students and students of color on their forest’s trails.
NEMT is located right next to the 28-acre NEMT Forest, which is adjacent to the larger Breakheart Reservation.
Friends of NEMT Forest say the hilltop site of the new school would require removing 13 acres of the forest, felling an estimated 2,000 trees, and destroying wetlands vital to the forest’s wildlife.
This would endanger species such as the eastern whip-poor-will, whose population is declining, as well as spotted salamanders, wood frogs, spring peepers, and American toads, activists say.
In fact, they say, the NEMT Forest is the last “core habitat,” or habitat housing endangered species of federal concern, in Wakefield, making it doubly important to protect.
“It’s more than just the trees,” Wakefield resident Bronwyn Della-Volpe said. “A forest is a unique, complex interconnected ecosystem. Everything works together beautifully, even down to the fungal colonies in the soil. So you’re basically taking a whole unit of something and destroying it.”
NEMT school officials did not provide Boston.com with an estimate of how many acres of forest would be used, or an estimated number of trees that would be felled.
The proposed location also goes against a 2016 pre-feasibility study that rejected the hilltop site because of the high blasting and site development costs. The study instead recommended it be built on the school’s current football field.
At the time, the hilltop location was deemed the most expensive option, and Friends of NEMT Forest say they’d like to see that money used to create a better school.
Friends of NEMT Forest say the new location would also cause hardships for disabled students, teachers, and visitors when entering the school.
The main student parking lot and athletic fields would remain at the base of the hill, while the school itself would be atop the hill. This means students would have to climb 10 sets of steps or walk 700 ft. on a new, ramped boardwalk to scale the 60-70 ft. change in elevation.
Additionally, abutters to the project, such as Wakefield resident Bob Brooks, say they’re concerned about how the blasting and construction will impact them while the school is being built.
Brooks said they’re also worried about ongoing impacts to the neighborhood, such as newly-created falling rock areas caused by the blasting and increased traffic near the school.
So far, Friends of NEMT Forest has created a petition against the proposed new location that has been signed by over 2,300 people. They’ve also held protests, created lawn signs, and had several letters to the editor published in local papers.
In January 2022, the 12 municipalities the school serves, which includes Chelsea, Malden, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Saugus, Stoneham, Wakefield, Winchester, Winthrop, and Woburn, voted to approve funding for the new school.
Even so, activists say, they’ve found that residents often don’t know where the school is going to be located or are mistaken about where it’s being built.
“I haven’t met one person who knows where it’s going to be located. And when they find out, they’re shocked. They did not know this before they cast their vote for the funding of the school,” Della-Volpe said.
Wakefield resident Christine Rioux said she’s found communication about where the school would be located to be confusing and contradictory.
For example, she said, a February 2021 release from the Massachusetts School Building Authority said the new school would be built “on the site of the existing school.”
Rioux also said residents may not have been as engaged with the project as they normally would have been because of the pandemic. They now feel they’ve been blindsided by the decision about the new location.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘This information was on the website, we showed where we’re going to build this.’ It’s another to really engage with the community and have them understand where you’re going to put this,” Rioux said.
All in all, activists say, they don’t understand why the location for the new school was chosen. What answers they do get from the school, they say, are rote and canned.
Superintendent David DiBarri said the site was chosen because, upon further investigation with engineers and architects, no other site was found to be big enough.
“The only way we would have been able to fit on another site is if we made the school smaller than what the current enrollment is, he said.
That’s the opposite of what NEMT hopes to do. The 1,250-student school is at capacity and overcrowded, yet is wait-listing hundreds of students a year, DiBarri said.
Additionally, around 70% of NEMT’s student body is from Revere, Chelsea, and Malden, where the local high school’s graduation rates are 10 to 15 points lower than NEMT.
“We had 1,000 applicants for 330 openings this year. I had to tell 670 kids they can’t come to Northeast and have a better chance at a career,” DiBarri said.
The superintendent believes activists’ environmental concerns are overblown. While the school will technically be on several acres of land, the majority of the land that will actually be built on is a ledge with very few trees, he said.
“If you bought five acres of land to build a house, does that mean you’re going to tear up five acres of trees to build your house?” he said. “You will take up a little area where your house is, and you might have a little area for a pathway or for a backyard, but it doesn’t mean that we’re destroying and flattening out all of the property.”
Additionally, DiBarri said, the school plans to try to replant any trees that need to be removed, and those that can’t be replanted will be donated to be used as wood for community projects.
DiBarri also said he resents activists objecting to the boardwalk, as it was added to the project in lieu of other options for pathways that would have disturbed the environment even more.
“I’d love it if a leaf never fell off a tree, but we’re going to do everything we can to correct any challenges to the ecosystem,” he said.
In regards to accessibility issues, DiBarri said, ADA parking spaces will be made available for students, staff, and visitors at all parts of the school. He also said the number of steps students would have to climb or feet they would have to walk is well within legal limits and is nothing abnormal.
As for the pre-feasibility study, DiBarri said, its information is outdated, and the school has since acquired the millions needed to build the new school in the chosen location.
That money could be lost if they decided to go with a new location, he said, and with rising costs due to inflation, halting the project could cost significantly more.
“If they do things legally to try to delay us, it’s going to cost the taxpayers millions of dollars per month,” DiBarri said.
According to the superintendent, he’s made exhaustive efforts to inform the public about the plans for the new school, not the least of which includes creating a website devoted to sharing information about the project.
DiBarri said he’s also gone door to door with information, held over 50 community meetings, gone to speak about the project at town and school committee meetings, and talked about the plans at Lion’s and Rotary Club meetings.
DiBarri said after years of battling the opposition, he’s come to the conclusion that environmentalism is not the only reason to protest the location.
“We all know this is about NIMBY (not in my backyard),” he said.
DiBarri said he’s received phone calls, emails, and written threats from people who say they do not want the school’s population, which is largely students of color and low-income students, in the neighborhood.
“They don’t want these kids coming up from Chelsea, Revere, and whatever the stereotypes are about our students, that it’s going to be in their backyard, and it’s going to be on their walking trails,” he said.
While the superintendent said he thinks most people who oppose the location of the new school are genuinely concerned about the environment, they’ve been misled by abutters who will find any reason to oppose the project.
DiBarri said abutters have been jumping from one reason to another to oppose the project as school officials have addressed their concerns about issues such as drainage and blasting.
Now, the superintendent says, they’ve finally found support among others by centering their opposition around environmental concerns.
“I’ve tried to be polite. There are so many great people in Wakefield. The last thing I ever want to do is say that the town of Wakefield has these issues that a couple of the abutters have, because they don’t. But I’ll be honest, we’re getting fed up with the lies,” he said.
Opponents of the school’s location vehemently denied that their opposition has anything to do with the school’s student population, and were outraged at the suggestion. Some said they have similar backgrounds to the school’s student population and that they’ve enjoyed having the school in their neighborhood.
“That is the most asinine statement I have ever heard and reflects the thoughts of a small narrow-minded person. It is a lame excuse to move forward with this project,” Brooks, who is an abutter, wrote over email.
As the funding for the new NEMT school has been approved, there is little Friends of NEMT Forest can do to stop the project.
Activists said they are aware their campaign is a long shot, but they hope school officials will eventually see the light.
“They’re going to be known not for producing a phenomenal high school, but for being the ones to tear down the forest,” Brooks said.
Meanwhile, DiBarri and school officials are forging ahead, and broke ground on the new school last month.
“The benefit of 50 more years of vocational education at Northeast is going to change more lives than I think any of these people could imagine,” DiBarri said.
Construction of the new school is set to begin early next year, and completed in 2026.
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