By Jonathan L'Ecuyer
For Gloucester backers of an expanded regional vocational technical school program, the third time was the charm.
On the third attempt, City Council has pledged its membership to the so-called megavoke school district to be created by the planned merger of the North Shore Technical and Essex Agricultural high schools.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to join the proposed North Shore Regional Vocational School District, overriding Mayor Carolyn Kirk's veto of an earlier vote, and committing to paying a share of the estimated $133 million construction cost. Kirk had expressed a number of financial concerns about the city's becoming part of the new district and state-of-the-art school.
"Clearly, the administration is going to respect the will of the council," Kirk said yesterday in response to the veto-proof, 7-0, vote. Ward 5 Councilor Greg Verga abstained from voting on the matter because his brother is a teacher in the Gloucester High School vocational program; at-large Councilor Bob Whynott did not attend Tuesday's meeting.
"I think there is enough of an understanding out there that the expenses that will be mounting from the decision to join are eventually going to be taken away from other education programs," Kirk said.
Kirk, however, was quick to credit the councilors who voted in favor of the meals and room local option taxes — saying revenues from those local tax hikes, which take effect April 1, would help defray additional costs associated with the megavoke membership.
City Council President Jackie Hardy yesterday supported adoption of the local option taxes — and had been one of three councilors who voted against joining the new school in December.
At the time, she and Ward 3 Councilor Steve Curcuru said unanswered questions about the costs of the new school and how they would be paid prevented them from voting in favor of joining the district.
But Hardy and Curcuru said their questions were answered Tuesday by Gloucester Schools Superintendent Christopher Farmer, who presented a business model of the long-term cost to the city under the expanded regional vo-tech program. The approval follows debate and consideration of whether the city should instead expand its Gloucester High School vo-tech programs — and whether the city can afford running its own programs while being part of the regional.
"We passed the room and meal tax a while back, that will add revenue, and in two years we'll have a major hotel that will increase that revenue," Curcuru said yesterday. "(That) made me feel more comfortable.
"We'll never be able to compete (locally) with the North Shore vocational (school)," he added.
Hardy said it was a "relief" to learn that tuition costs associated with sending Gloucester students to the regional vocational school not only include transportation costs, but Gloucester's share of the construction debt service.
"We deserve to give the students the best education we can 'arguably' afford," said Hardy, who added her initial opposition never had anything to do with the planned megavoke itself. "I continue to have concern about whether both (the regional vocational school and Gloucester's vocational program) can survive; eventually something's got to give."
However, some officials say the costs to join the regional vocational school are a wash, because Gloucester would be on the hook to pay tuition and transportation costs for students who would attend an outside vocational program.
"The costs expand and contract with the number of students in the (regional vocational) program," School Committee Chairwoman Valerie Gilman said yesterday. "But the superintendent was able to convince the council the costs if we do join the regional voke pretty much level out with the type of expenses we'd have to pay if we didn't join it."
The city's total payment for membership in the regional district, including interest, over 30 years is estimated at more than $5 million. While city and school officials support the new regional school, many said yesterday that does not detract from their commitment to continue, even expand, Gloucester's own vocational programming.
According to School Committee Secretary and Gloucester's North Shore Technical High School representative Melissa Teixeira, the Gloucester Vocational Education Development Steering Committee plans to continue to examine the possibility of expanding programs in addition to strengthening Gloucester's existing vocational offerings.
One needs to look no further than the School Committee's fiscal 2011 budget proposal to see it is serious about expanding Gloucester's vocational programming.
The $36.8 million budget request, aired at a public hearing last night, seeks a 2.9 percent increase — and includes $118,000 to hire a vice principal in charge of the vo-tech program and buy new vocational equipment.
If it adds one additional vocational program, the district would be required by the state to have a dedicated administrator to run it.
"We have a serious commitment to the local vocational school," said at-large Councilor Joseph Ciolino yesterday. "Just because we voted to join doesn't mean we'll give up on our local vocational school. We want to make it bigger and better."
However, Kirk said the school budget as approved by the School Committee is not affordable, and the committee will be forced to cut its budget soon. The mayor also serves as a member of the School Committee.
Ciolino said one of the benefits of joining the regional district is the newer equipment the city may be able to obtain for Gloucester's vocational programs from the old North Shore Technical High School in Middleton.
"There is a ton of equipment not going into the new school, but rather to the districts that have shops," Ciolino said. "The Gloucester (voke) needs to start thinking about what is in that school and what its needs are to build up what we have here."
The new school will create a 1,440-student building on land home to the Essex Aggie campus in Danvers.
"Gloucester has struggled with the decision to join the (regional voke) and rightfully so," Teixeira said yesterday in a written statement, yesterday. "Concerns of the financial impact to our city budget has been of great concern by the City Council members.
"A continued advocacy to protect the interest of our community will be required as the new district agreement is drafted," she said. "Most importantly, partnerships and collaboration with (the regional school) will provide our students with the education and experience required to compete in the labor market."
The state is committing around $100 million toward the construction of the new school, leaving the 17 potential member communities to pick up the remaining costs.
"I hope the students going to the regional vocational school and their parents appreciate the opportunity," said Hardy, "because in times like this, it's not easy."
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3451 or email@example.com.