Critics put Wentworth supporters on the hot seat

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SCARBOROUGH — Supporters of a plan to build a $39 million Wentworth Intermediate School took the heat Monday night as residents not sold on the project grilled them at Scarborough High School.

More than 100 people attended the forum where town officials and members of the Wentworth Building Committee, which drafted the plan for the new school, answered questions about their proposal. 

Scarborough voters will decide whether to approve the $39 million bond on Election Day, Nov. 8. 

Though many in the audience were supportive of the new school, responding to positive comments with applause, most of the people who addressed the panel had questions about the size and scope of the plan. 

Several asked why the school need replacement rather than renovation, and committee Chairman Paul Koziel repeated throughout the night that renovation is not an option.

“This school is a Ford Explorer with 500,000 miles on it,” Koziel said. “The repair costs just keep adding up. … It would be an exercise in futility to continue trying to renovate that school.”

Cramped classrooms, asbestos and air-quality problems, moldy underground tunnels, leaks, a lack of restrooms, poor temperature controls and the absence of a sprinkler system are some of the reasons given to replace Wentworth.

Todd Jepson, facilities manager for Scarborough schools, said $1.4 million has been spent on “Band-Aid” fixes over the last few years. He estimated more than $3 million would be spent in the coming years and said Wentworth costs 64 percent more for natural gas than Scarborough Middle School. 

Other residents were concerned about the cost of the proposal. A bond would be issued for up to $39 million, but debt service could bring the total cost of the school up to $66 million, assuming a worst-case-scenario 4.5 percent interest rate, although Town Manager Tom Hall said it could come in lower than that.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees out here,” resident David Green said. “It doesn’t fall like leaves to the ground.”

Green asked why the committee insisted on building a new school if the cost of renovating is, by their own estimates, 85 percent of the cost to build new. 

Koziel responded that building new allows less disturbance to the school schedule, because the new building would be built next to the existing Wentworth while school is in session. He also said new costs could emerge in renovation from problems no one knew about until contractors started digging.

Earlier in the night, Kelly Noonan-Murphy, who a member of the building committee and a School Board candidate, took a different approach to the cost question:  she said the town has estimated that the average increase in property taxes to Scarborough residents would be $150 per year.

“There’s nothing you can do for $150 per year to your own home that would increase its value like a new school,” she said. “… We all want this to be as cheap as it can be. We’re all taxpayers.”

The surprise concern of the night – and one likely to take up many meeting minutes if the bond is approved – came from Sue Foley-Ferguson, a former town councilor and critic of Central Maine Power Co.’s “smart meter” program.

Foley-Ferguson, who has a daughter at Wentworth, questioned how committed the building committee members really are to student safety, since they plan to install ubiquitous Wi-Fi Internet access in the new school. 

She said WiFi signals are dangerous for children, citing a World Health Organization paper in May that said radio frequency radiation is a possible carcinogen. Another woman said her children do not attend Scarborough schools because she doesn’t want to expose them to WiFi.

“All over the world, they are pulling WiFi out of schools,” Foley-Ferguson said. “We’re talking about getting asbestos and mold out of the school, but getting ready to install WiFi.”

Rob Willey, who worked on the technology proposals for the school, told Foley-Ferguson the building committee had worked with the EPA and other state and federal agencies on WiFi, and that teachers and staff are adamant about having ubiquitous Wi-Fi. 

“The health risks that might be associated with that don’t overcome the educational benefits that come with it,” he said.

Koziel told the audience that specifics such as whether the school has ubiquitous WiFi will be made in the planning process, but only if the bond passes. He urged Foley-Ferguson and anyone else with specific building concerns not to let those worries dictate their overall assessment of whether a new school is needed.

“I’m not saying I’m persuaded by what you’re saying,” he told Foley-Ferguson, “but we have time to look at it together.”

Panel members also tackled the criticism that the proposed school would be larger than the norm, or larger than Scarborough needs.

Contrary to what some critics have suggested, project architect Dan Cecil said there is no state standard for square feet per student. The state does offer recommendations, he said, on total square feet for classrooms and other rooms. 

“The Wentworth project has rooms that meet but do not exceed those recommendations,” he said. “I assure you, the committee beat on that floor plan very hard.”

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