NORTHEAST METRO TECH, a vocational high school in Wakefield, is in dire need of replacement, according to Superintendent David DiBarri. The school has sought money from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, but even with a grant, the 12 communities it draws students from will still need to pay $176 million to rebuild it. 

Northeast Metro Tech serves working-class cities including Chelsea, Revere, and Malden. DiBarri said the school is popular – last year, 800 students applied for 330 slots – but he worries about its future if the communities it serves cannot provide the money needed to renovate. 

On Friday, the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committees heard an earful from education advocates urging lawmakers to use some federal money to invest in school building projects. The committee is facing the herculean task of prioritizing how to spend $5.3 billion in one-time money that the state received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act – with advocates from every area seeking a chunk of the pie. Legislative leaders have said they hope to release a bill that allocates at least some of the money before Thanksgiving. Friday’s hearing focused on education. 

“The condition of our schools is directly related to the health, safety, and academic success of students,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat who testified. 

While the ARPA money is flexible, Education Secretary Jim Peyser said the guidelines are restrictive on what building projects can be funded. Peyser said he does not believe new construction would be eligible for money, but projects would be eligible if they had a nexus to COVID-19 – for example, schools could use ARPA money to upgrade ventilation systems. 

Treasurer Deb Goldberg said the state might also be able to give money to municipalities, which could use it to make part of the local contribution that the Massachusetts School Building Authority requires on projects it’s funding. Goldberg, who oversees the MSBA, said there are many communities that could get MSBA money today but cannot get voter approval to make the local contribution.  

“The idea would be to commit ARPA funds to the most needy cities so they have extra resources to expedite moving forward on school projects,” Goldberg said. She said this has been a problem in urban, poor communities, but also in rural communities where declining populations means they have little tax money to spend. 

In Lynn, school officials want to spend $8 million in federal COVID relief funds to upgrade HVAC systems. But state Rep. Peter Capano of Lynn said the city has 12 schools that are more than 100 years old. “The need for repairs renovations far outpaces the availability of funds,” he said. 

Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy said even before the pandemic, ventilation in many schools was inadequate. Twenty months into the pandemic, a survey of the union’s local presidents found that two-thirds said additional upgrades to ventilation are necessary to ensure students’ health and safety. “There is work ready to be done,” she said. 

Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur said the problem is particularly acute for vocational-technical schools, which are more expensive to build than traditional schools because they need specialized space and equipment. Charlie Lyons, a former superintendent at Shawsheen Tech who is helping three vocational technical schools get their projects approved by the MSBA, said the high price tag communities are facing to replace Northeast Metro Tech is not unusual. A proposed project at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School would cost Taunton $75 million, while a project at Diman Regional Voc-Tech would cost Fall River $100 million.  

“Anything you can do to provide funding to minimize the cost to local communities might make these projects reality come early next year,” Lyons said.