OPINION: Good News on the Whittier Tech School

By: Lenny Mirra – 5/24

Sometimes the system works!

Voters soundly rejected a plan for a new Whittier Vocational Tech building at a cost of $444.6 million, and when I say soundly, I mean angrily too.

Comments I heard in person and on social media showed voters were turned off not only by the price tag but also by a lack of communication from the Whittier side.

Many felt blindsided by the proposal as it’s not obvious why anyone would propose tearing down a building that appears to be in fairly good condition to build an entirely new one.

Common sense would suggest updating and repairing the existing building, which is exactly what would happen if it were privately owned by people spending their own money, but common sense is not so common when it comes to government spending.

Funding formulas from Massachusetts School Building Authority encourage districts to tear down buildings and build new instead of repairing existing buildings.

It was “cheaper” for the district to build new even though the cost is a lot higher, but only because the district would get less funding from MSBA to pay for repairs.

One thing everyone agreed on was that something had to be done, and a guided tour through the building was more than enough to convince anyone who had any doubt. The building is over 50 years old, and the sewer system is at the end of its useful life. Updating it means that the entire facility would have to be brought to current code requirements, and all of it would be subject to Prevailing Wage laws, so even repairs would add up to hundreds of millions.

And repairs won’t change the fact that the school was built in what many call a swamp. The floors of the school are lower than outside ground elevations, so the building is constantly taking in water.

New locations were proposed, but that meant buying a huge parcel of land and, under the terms of Whittier’s charter, it had to be within five miles of the Rocks Village Bridge. We needed outside-the-box thinking, and the district will be glad to know that they voted wisely in saying no to the first proposal because it could lead to a much better idea.

The Healey Administration has announced that it is now looking into a shared campus model where a new Whittier Vocational building could be built on the grounds of Northern Essex Community College, which makes total sense.

Sharing a campus means not having separate facilities for things like athletic fields, gyms, auditoriums, and administrative offices. The new partnership could also increase enrollment capacity for both schools, which is crucial right now because Whittier currently has to turn away students every year due to a lack of space.

Taxpayers will also be happy to hear that this idea could provide new funding sources and opportunities to help pay for the project, which would be a huge win at a time when property taxes are already skyrocketing.

The process was messy, and the “no” vote may have seemed like a defeat at the time, but the system worked, and the district will likely have a much better facility as a result. ◊