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Second time's a charm for Scarborough's Wentworth School: Voters OK $39M for new building

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Second time's a charm for Scarborough's Wentworth School: Voters OK $39M for new building

SCARBOROUGH — Residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for construction of a new Wentworth Intermediate School.

Unofficial returns provided by the town had the referendum passing with 63 percent of the vote, 4,792 to 2,784.

Proponents of the project have said the school must be replaced because of ongoing issues with air quality, mold and asbestos, as well poor building design that can mean 90 minutes per day of students commuting through the halls.

They also were concerned about poor energy efficiency, a lack of air conditioning that left classrooms sweltering in the warmer months, and a lack of basic amenities like running water and restrooms in large portions of the school.

"We are very excited," said Christine Massengill, a member of the 40-strong building committee that promoted the proposal, and, as of Tuesday, a new School Board member. Massengill was at the polls at Scarborough High School when the results were announced.

"We were very optimistic before, and we were made even more optimistic by turnout throughout the day," she said. "We never really thought about what would happen if it didn't pass."

Including absentee ballots, 7,712 residents voted in Scarborough this year, for a turnout of more than 55 percent.

High participation didn't surprise Town Clerk Tody Justice, who said Scarborough's turnout always trumps the state level. She was at the polls all day Tuesday, and said one issue drove numbers this year:

"It was the school question," Justice said. "We had a lot of young families voting."

The $39 million plan, which could total as much as $66 million with 30 years of debt service, will pay for a 163,000-square-foot building with a geothermal heating and cooling system. The plan calls for 40 classrooms and is designed to accommodate a 15 percent student population growth. The third- through fifth-grade school currently has about 775 students.

The additional tax burden would amount to $59 per $100,000 of property valuation, according to supporters. That means a tax increase of about $118 per year for a home valued at $200,000.

Voters at the polls Tuesday said they supported the bond because they valued Scarborough schools. But many had a more personal reason to support the new Wentworth: they had been students there themselves.

"I went to school there at the old Wentworth," said Zac Barrett, who was at the polls with his wife, Jessica, and their young daughter. "That school is in desperate need."

Tuesday's election was the second time Scarborough voters have been asked to replace Wentworth. In 2006, a $38.3 million proposal failed, 5,176 to 3,316.

Ann-Mayre Dexter, principal at Wentworth, served on the committees that drafted the 2006 plan and this year's proposal. She said the measure failed last time around because it was coupled with a $16 million renovation to Scarborough Middle School, which also failed.

"Voters had just approved millions for a new high school," she said. "And in Scarborough, we still think of the middle school as 'new' even though it's 16 years old. It just wasn't a good package."

This year, Dexter said, the committee devoted much more effort to public education. There were community forums, a website, videos, brochures, a booth at Summerfest and more. It was a real campaign, she said.

This time around, supporters of the school bond also formed a political action committee, Citizens for a Safe and Sustainable Wentworth. By Oct. 27, the PAC had raised almost $7,900. It spent nearly $5,500 on signs, T-shirts, brochures and other campaign materials.

"As a building committee, we made a considerable effort to get a lot of people out to vote," said Paul Koziel, chairman of the Wentworth Building Committee. "As a result of that, we had a great result.”

"It was a great victory," he said.

Leading up to Election Day, not everyone in Scarborough supported the big-ticket proposal. At a forum held three weeks before the polls opened, some residents questioned the size and scope of the plan. Many said they understood Wentworth needed work, but that the plan should have been smaller.

"Money doesn't grow on trees out here," resident David Green said at that forum. "It doesn't fall like leaves to the ground."

On Tuesday, some voters voiced similar concerns.

"I voted no on Wentworth," said Larry Bridgham. "It should have been a little more austere in these tough times."

But with those questions answered at the ballot box, the committee has more work ahead. Final design decisions will have to be made before the project can be put out to bid. The committee estimates that if everything goes according to plan, construction could start by next fall.

"Now we can seriously get down to work now and start looking at the true design of the building and all the innards that make a great school,” Dexter said.

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