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Vote likely in South Portland on $5.8M school renovation bond

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Vote likely in South Portland on $5.8M school renovation bond

SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters in June are likely to be asked to borrow $5.8 million for school renovations.
The City Council agreed in a joint meeting Monday night with the School Board to place the bond referendum on the ballot. No formal action will be taken, however, until the specific referendum question has been drafted by the city attorney.
The School Board presented councilors with three options for addressing student health and safety issues at the high school and Memorial and Mahoney middle schools. Those options ranged from a $5.8 million one-year plan to a $48 million full renovation.
The improvements would address some of the issues highlighted in a preliminary accreditation report, which cited the "ruinous effects" the high school building has on learning. If the district cannot make improvements within five years it could lose its accreditation, making it harder for graduates to get into college or land jobs.
The one-year renovation plan supported by councilors would fund improvements to electrical systems, fire alarms, emergency lighting and security systems at all three schools.
Mayor Tom Blake said the city must immediately address student health and safety issues. Any first-year improvements, he said, could be incorporated into a full renovation.
"This is not wasted money," Blake said. "These are all items that need attention now."
Blake conceded the plan falls short of providing a long-term fix, but argued the council has a responsibility to put a bond forward that is likely to be approved this summer.
School Board member Ralph Baxter, who led the school facility committee, Wednesday said the one-year plan is a "a step down the right path." But he was disappointed there wasn't more of a dialog with councilors about the long-term needs at the high school, which not only includes the health and safety issues, but also educational issues like ambient noise and a shortage of space.
"There was little to no dialog during the meeting," Baxter said. "It wasn't what I thought should happen. We didn't talk about what's best for education."
Baxter said some councilors believed the pared-down renovation plan, expected to cost about $48 million, is not a significant enough reduction from the $56 million plan voters overwhelmingly defeated in 2007. But he said the plan is as basic as it can get.
"We can't take anything else out of the plan," Baxter said. "We have to keep pushing for what's best for education."
Although critics contend the full renovation plan exceeds the state standard for square footage, Baxter said that is the case because the plan reuses portions of the existing building. The only way to reduce the size, he said, would be to bulldoze the entire school, which would create additional costs and logistical problems, including where to send students during constriction.
Councilor Tom Coward said he would like to see the School Department take another shot at a referendum for the entire renovation project.
"That idea went over like a lead balloon," Coward said of the council's response.
A $48 million bond would almost certainly increase the local property tax rate. But Coward said poor economic conditions coupled with a
competitive construction market could work to the city's advantage.
"I think we're missing a window of opportunity," he said.
Councilors also generally dismissed a five-year maintenance plan, which would cost upwards of $41 million and only extend the high school's life span by 20 years. A full renovation would cost $7 million more and is estimated to last 50 years.
Councilor Jim Soule said he wouldn't take a position on any of the proposals until he has been convinced there is no federal stimulus money for school construction.
Recycling
In other business, the council put the brakes on extending the city's recycling services to condominium and apartment complexes.
Mayor Blake said the council generally believed that city could not afford to expand the service at this time. Nearly $50,000 would be needed to provide recycling services to the 1,100 apartment and condo units. That estimate, however, is for a two man crew and a truck to go into each complex and pick up recycling by hand.
Blake said he has asked representatives from Pine Tree Waste to come back with a revised estimate of what it would cost if condo owners bought a blue bin and placed them on the curb on the city's regular trash day. The council will revisit the issue in a month or so, he said.
Some councilors said they would be against any recycling proposal that would increased costs to taxpayers.

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