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South Portland voters OK high school renovations

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South Portland voters OK high school renovations

SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters on Tuesday approved a $41.5 million bond to renovate and expand South Portland High School.

Unofficial machine tallies showed that the bond passed by a vote of 6,673 to 4,297. City Clerk Susan Mooney said 61 percent of the city's 18,691 voters turned out for the election.

Jeff Selser, spokesman for the RenewSPHS political action committee that was formed to support the bond, said the vote was a result of the group's work to educate and turn out voters.

"We are absolutely thrilled," Selser said. "This is a great day for South Portland. It shows that residents really do want to invest in their future."

Superintendent Suzanne Godin said the School Department will soon establish a building committee to begin planning for construction.

The preliminary plan by project architects Harriman Associates estimated it would take three years to build the 1,100-student school, which could open in the spring of 2015.

The high school plan calls for demolition of the so-called annex, which will be rebuilt so that it connects the school in a circular pattern that will create a courtyard.

The 1950s portion of the school will be kept and renovated, as will Beal Gym and the South Portland Auditorium.

The school is expected to expand by 50 percent, from about 200,000 square feet to 300,000 square feet and will include a variety of energy-efficient features.

The bond was sought because there is no state funding to address facility problems that have earned the school a warning from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that its accreditation is in jeopardy.

NEASC noted the general structural decay of the school, in addition to several specific issues, including noncompliance with building and handicapped accessibility codes; poor heating and ventilation systems; outdated electrical systems; leaky roofs and toilets, and a lack of hot water in restrooms.

Failure to address these issues could have landed the school on probation, Godin said.

In addition to the $41.5 million bond, taxpayers will also have to pay interest estimated at $19.6 million, bringing the total borrowing cost up to $61.1 million.

In 2007, voters rejected a $56 million bond (a figure that didn't include interest) by a 3-1 margin.

At the polls on Tuesday afternoon, resident Kevin Powell said he voted against the bond this year. The life-long Democrat said he also voted for City Council candidate Albert DiMillo Jr., the leading critic of the high school plan.

"I tend to agree with Mr. DiMillo," Powell said. "They don't need to spend that much."

Paul Manson, 56, said he voted against the project in 2007, but supported this proposal.

"It's time," Manson said. "The other plan was too expensive, but this one was good."

Emily Akeley, 24, also supported the bond. The South Portland High School graduate said the school had needs when she was a student. 

"It was falling apart when I graduated," Akeley said. "I can only imagine what has happened in the last six years."

Selser said he believes this time around, voters had a better appreciation for the needs of the high school and a better project – one that didn't include luxuries like an artificial turf field or second gym.

According to projections provided by City Finance Director Greg L'Heureux, the total, 20-year cost of the bond for owners of a home assessed at $200,000 would be more than $3,600. The cost to owners of a $400,000 home would be nearly $7,300, while the cost for owners of a $150,000 home would be more than $2,700.

Homeowners would pay the most in 2015, when the project would cost those taxpayers $213, $426 and $164, respectively.

Those figures, L'Heureux said, are for the high school project alone and do not account for increases in the city and school operating budgets, or changes in he city's valuation.

Selser said he is looking forward to spending more time with his family now that the bond has passed.

"It will be nice to spend time with my kids where we're not putting up lawn signs or knocking on doors," he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net