CUMBERLAND — Voters in Cumberland and North Yarmouth will decide on Election Day whether to borrow as much as $9.5 million to add a performing arts center to Greely High School.
A public hearing on the question Monday that packed the high school library drew mostly support from the audience, many of whom were Greely High and Middle school students.
Proponents spoke about the educational and community benefits an arts center would provide the two towns that make up School Administrative District 51.
But others raised questions about the expense of the project, and the impact on residents already strained by property taxes.
Construction of the proposed 26,000-square-foot center – which would be built at the rear of Greely High School, on a leveled-off area between the 303 Main St. building and the outdoor track – could start next summer and conclude in fall 2018. Designed by Stephen Blatt Architects to seat 500, the plan could be expanded to fit 700. (Detailed information on the project can be found at msad51.org.)
Blatt led the audience through designs of the two-story, square building, which would include a 40-foot-tall fly loft – used to store scenery out of sight – as well as teaching spaces for band and chorus. The project cost also includes about $1 million for performing arts equipment.
“It’s a very comprehensive facility,” Blatt, a Cumberland resident, said. “It is meant for the community’s access and use; it’s not so much to invite the Rolling Stones. It’s really meant for students of all ages and sizes to relate to the audience.”
“There are just as many amenities here as in any of the theaters around,” Blatt added. “I promise you it’ll be just as wonderful as Merrill (Auditorium in Portland), just quite a bit smaller.”
The arts center would replace Greely High’s “cafetorium,” a combined cafeteria and auditorium. Several students noted the awkward conditions of the current set-up, including cramped changing areas, compared with the many school districts around that have their own PACs.
Katie Murphy of North Yarmouth said that factor pushed her son, who graduated in 2003, away from Greely. He had discovered technical theater in high school, but after having seen another school’s technical facility, “he didn’t look back. … We found a way for him to go elsewhere to school, because he saw what Greely did not have, and what other schools did have.”
“He felt that the arts were less valued than other aspects of the curriculum at Greely,” Murphy added.
Nikolas Kurlanski, a student who serves on SAD 51’s PAC Committee, told the audience the center would “be really nice, because what we have now is not great. We have wings that are about 2 feet of space, and this will provide us with about … 15 feet.”
“I absolutely hate performing (music) in the gym,” he added. “… And in the cafeteria, it is the absolute worst. Awful acoustics.”
Although his son serves on the PAC Committee, Joe Kurlanski of Cumberland said he has reservations about the project. Kurlanski noted his time in band and theater while in school and after college graduation.
Falmouth High School had a cafetorium of its own during his time there, Kurlanski said.
“I get it; I’ve been through the whole situation,” he said, but noting that SAD 51 has closed two schools in recent years, and that while “we’ve added more community in the back, my taxes still keep going up. I’m very concerned about this additional debt.”
“I really do want to vote yes,” he said, noting his desire to hear from other students and board members. “I want to hear how we’re going to control debt moving forward.”
Mark McConnell of Cumberland said he thought SAD 51 has “done a lot with what we have had. … Perceived hardship isn’t a prerequisite for not being able to accomplish the things that you want to do in the rest of your life.”
He questioned why a facility would be built that could not fit all of Greely High’s students and staff, adding, “If that means we have to have more than 500 seats, then I’d like to see that happen.”
Some critics point to other major projects on SAD 51’s horizon, such as improvements at the Mabel I. Wilson Elementary School and sections of Greely High School. Meanwhile, the two towns have significant projects ahead, including an expanded fire station in Cumberland and redevelopment of the former North Yarmouth Memorial School property.
The School Board’s 10-year facilities plan, which it approved in June, calls for construction of the arts center, as well as improvements at the Wilson and high schools. Data on elements such as optimal grade configurations is being collected before facility work at Mabel I. Wilson begins.
School Board member Karen Campbell noted that a school district needs to carry debt, and that SAD 51 is below the appropriate level of debt a system should have.
“If we drop too much below that, it does affect our bond rating, and then that affects the rate at which we can borrow money,” she said.
Adding that the state expects communities to put money into their schools, Campbell said, “If we’re not showing that we are funding infrastructure in our schools, that also has the potential to impact the amount of monies that we receive overall for our students.”
Debt for the center would be tiered over three years, to minimize the expense as existing debt is retired. Interest-only payments would come in 2019 and 2020, followed by peak interest and principal payments the next year.
The impact of the increase on the tax bill for a $300,000 home would be $9 in Cumberland and $12 in North Yarmouth in 2019 and 2020, and then $69 in Cumberland and $84 in North Yarmouth in 2021.
The difference is based on the property valuation in each community. Cumberland has a larger commercial tax base and hence more property value; the greater the valuation in a community, the less impact there is on the tax rate, school district Finance Director Scott Poulin has said.
Annual PAC bond debt, to be partly offset by refinancing Greely High bonds from a prior project, would be as much as $777,500 in 2021, dropping to $507,500 by 2039, while debt service on other projects would be retired, according to Poulin.
Increased valuation in both towns over the years would help soften the impact as well, he added.
Operating costs each year for the center could be nearly $133,000, including $32,000 for a theater manager; $43,000 for a custodian; about $39,000 for energy costs, and about $18,000 for maintenance and supplies.
Although voters in 2001 approved a 475-seat facility for $5 million, the bond amount ended up being insufficient to cover construction costs. A follow-up referendum for an additional $1.5 million failed, which killed the project.
While a $9 million figure had been floated this time around, the $9.5 million cap is meant to provide flexibility so the district will not have to go back to the two towns again for more funds.
Steve Blatt presents his architectural firm’s design of a performing arts center, to be connected to Greely High School in Cumberland, during a public hearing Monday, Oct. 17 at the high school.
A public hearing on borrowing up to $9.5 million to build a performing arts center in School Administrative District 51 filled the Greely High School library Monday night, Oct. 17, in Cumberland. The SAD 51 Board of Directors hosted the meeting.