DANVERS — More than two years after work was approved, a ground-breaking ceremony Wednesday marked the start of construction of the $133.7 million Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical High School. It is estimated that the 1,440-student school will take two years to build and open in September 2014.
"The road here has been very long and often difficult, but through the efforts of so many dedicated and focused people, we have finally come to this day of hard hats and shovels," said George Harvey, chairman of the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School Committee. "We will see our new school rise from this spot. We will see teachers teach here and students learn here."
Those gathered for the ceremony could see green construction fences encompassing the rolling fields of an expansive work site. An excavator, a bulldozer and a backhoe sat idle and served as a backdrop to yesterday's ceremony. The Berry building will be torn down to make way for the school.
Students from North Shore Technical High and Essex Agricultural and Technical High also took part in the ceremony.
Essex Aggie's Class of 2013 president Brianna Mann said she has overcome reservations about the project because of concern it might harm the school's agricultural offerings.
"At first, I wasn't happy with it, but I'm pleased because they are accepting more kids into the program," Mann said in a brief interview.
With Essex Aggie and the 16-community North Shore Tech turning away students, North Shore officials came to the conclusion over the past decade that the best way forward was to merge all of these programs under one roof. Both of the current schools serve Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester and Essex, and all four Cape Ann communities have signed on to the new merged regional. The Gloucester School District also continues to operate its own vocational-technical program at Gloucester High.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, praised school leaders for putting parochial interests aside.
"They didn't argue for one minute about who was in charge or where should we put it," Tarr said.
At times, speakers struggled to make sure everyone who championed the project would be thanked.
Former North Shore Tech Superintendent-Director Amy O'Malley was among those who credited former Massachusetts School Building Authority Executive Director Katherine Craven for having the vision at the state level to find a way to get the project funded.
"Education is all a matter of building bridges," said Danvers Town Manager Wayne Marquis, quoting the American writer Ralph Ellison.
Marquis served as the former chairman of the Temporary Oversight Committee that shepherded the project through the approval process from 2004 to 2009. He was among those who spoke about what the project means for the region's and state's economic future, and the ability to prepare students.
Since the school is being built on state-owned land of Essex Aggie, representatives of the state Division of Capital Asset Management attended the ceremony. The state is kicking in $21.1 million for the project. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is providing the lion's share of the funding at $77.5 million.
The 16 communities of North Shore Tech plus Peabody will foot a bill of $35.1 million, less the sale of North Shore Tech's site in Middleton.
The 337,000-square-foot school is being built on a nearly 42-acre site that will encompass farm land, pastures, paddocks and playing fields. The site is in the western edge of town and is partially in Middleton.
The first part of the project will remove soil from the hill along Route 62 for use to level out ballfields at the back of the site, Essex Aggie Superintendent-Director Roger Bourgeois said.
North Shore Tech Superintendent-Director Dan O'Connell, who is overseeing the project, said plans are 90 percent complete. Bids on site work, steel and concrete have been approved. The project is on time and on budget, he said.
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