Battle lines drawn in Scarborough over Wentworth school bond referendum

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SCARBOROUGH — Wentworth Intermediate School has problems.

There’s the sprawling nature of the school, with it’s long corridors stemming from a central hub by the main office. The building includes what was supposed to be a temporary addition of portable classrooms; they have no running water or restrooms. It’s estimated that some students spend up to 90 minutes a day commuting to and from class, recess, lunch, gym and the bathroom.

A lack of air conditioning means sweltering classrooms in late spring and early autumn. Services such as occupational therapy are conducted in old locker rooms, where duct tape covers the shower drains.

And an ongoing asbestos problem means many windows are permanently closed for fear of exposing children to the dangerous mineral.

For these reasons and others, Scarborough residents will be asked on Election Day to authorize borrowing $39 million to tear down Wentworth and build a replacement. With interest payments estimated as high as 4.5 percent, the total cost could be up to $66 million for a 30-year bond.

Supporters argue that a new building is the only responsible option.

“It’s not a question of if we have to replace the school, it’s a matter of when,” said Paul Koziel, chairman of the Wentworth Building Committee, which designed the plan for a new school.

Opponents say that even if a new school is needed, the town can’t afford the price tag – especially because neither the School Board nor the committee charged with addressing Wentworth’s problems sought any state money to help fund the project.

“Does it need to be replaced at some point? Yes,” said Jeffrey Messer, a former town councilor. “Does it need to be replaced the way they’re proposing it? Absolutely not.”

The plan

Residents were first asked to rebuild the school in 2006, when a plan for a new Wentworth and a new middle school was defeated by voters.

Last year, the Town Council formed a more than 40-member committee to figure out what to do about Wentworth. The committee’s plan became the basis for the proposal on the ballot next month.

The building would total about 163,000 square feet, for a construction price of about $240 per square foot, including a geothermal heating and cooling system.

The school would stand two stories and contain 40 classrooms. It would feature a large, internal courtyard to maximize natural light to classrooms, which ideally will mean no need for artificial lighting during the day. A large gym would be divisible by a curtain, so two gym classes could be held at once. 

The school would be home to operations larger than just Wentworth: The high school basketball and track teams would be expected to use the gym, the kitchen would continue to provide food for Wentworth and all the elementary schools, and space would be reserved for community services.

If the referendum is approved, construction could begin as soon as fall 2012, Koziel said.

Too big to pass

But Messer said the Wentworth proposal is the wrong plan at the wrong time.

Messer, a town councilor from 1996 to 2008, served on the High School Building Committee, which developed a plan leading to a bond to renovate that school three years ago.

He says the proposed Wentworth school, topping in at about 203 square feet-per-student, is more than Scarborough needs and too costly.

“It doesn’t strike a balance between affordability and the needs of the students,” Messer said. “A building about 33 percent smaller would be more appropriate.”

Messer cited numbers from School Planning and Management magazine, which said the national median for square footage per student in a middle school is 125 square feet – a number drawn from a survey of construction projects across the nation, including 10 in New England.

Though Maine’s Department of Education doesn’t outline a size standard, Messer said Wentworth is well beyond the national average, and bigger than other projects in the state, all of which at least received state funds.

According to DOE documents, most of the schools that receive money from the state provide between 130 square feet and 180 square feet per student.

Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro, for example, serves about 800 students and provides 136 square feet per student. The SAD 71 Middle School in Kennebunk serves 760 students, with 135 square feet per student.

“I don’t have a problem with replacing the building, but it should be conservative,” Messer said. “At the elementary school level, you don’t need a flagship building.”

‘Smart planning, smart spending’

Koziel, the building committee chairman, said there’s a good reason the Wentworth plan is the size it is: necessity.

The school is designed for a 15 percent growth rate without any more construction, Koziel said. At 900 students, it would be about 181 square feet per student.

Most importantly, he said, the cost of the school is comparable to similar projects.

“If you look at our number in comparison to other schools that have been made at this level, we’re right in the middle,” Koziel said.

The Wentworth project costs about $240 per student. Pricier elementary schools  recently received state funding in Brunswick (2010: $301 per student), Falmouth (2009: $331 per student) and Gorham (2010: $314 per student).

Other elementary schools funded in the last three years in Lewiston, Brewer, Ellsworth and Durham all carried higher price tags per student than Wentworth.

Koziel said state funding wasn’t sought because the town can’t afford to wait for funding before building a new Wentworth.

“We likely would not have qualified anyway,” Koziel said. “It’s not that we don’t need a school, it’s that others need it more.” He also said that even if the school did make it on the list, Scarborough may have had to wait years before coming up for funds.

In that time, residents will have to pay between $2.2 million and $2.4 million to continually mitigate the problems from asbestos, mold and flooding. Todd Jepson, the school district’s facilities manager, said $1.6 million has been spent on Wentworth since 2006 on work that will need to be done every year.

Koziel said that’s throwing good money after bad.

“Why not spend money on a new school where there is a return on investment?,” he said. “It’s smart planning, and smart spending.”

‘It’s like a third-world country’

Kelly Noonan-Murphy, a member of the Wentworth Building Committee and candidate for the School Board, called the existing Wentworth school “an embarrassment.”

“This is like a third-world country compared to the middle school,” she said.

Noonan-Murphy has twin fourth-grade daughters at Wentworth. She said the committee worked hard to make the plan as small as possible, while still fulfilling the needs of the students and factoring in future growth.

But, she worries voter turnout will work against her cause.

“People think this is a done deal,” she said, because the Wentworth initiative has taken up so much time at Town Council and School Board meetings. Both those bodies have shown support for the new school.

Noonan-Murphy and the Building Committee are in full campaign mode for approval of the referendum question. Committee members have met with town groups and neighborhood associations and will continue to do so until Election Day.

But Messer said there are more opponents than are making themselves known.

“People won’t speak on the record,” he says. “They know the other side will make them out to be anti-education.”

Koziel said he and the Building Committee are prepared to address any and all concerns about the proposal. The committee will hold a presentation and question-and-answer session at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17, at the Scarborough High School Auditorium.

Voters will have their say on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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