Cumberland-North Yarmouth board OKs school arts center ballot language

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CUMBERLAND — A referendum question spending up to $9.5 million to build a performing arts center is a step closer to the November ballot.

The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors voted 6-2 Sept. 8 to approve language for the question.

Supporters noted the importance of performing arts in education, and called the center a potential “crown jewel” of the school district.

Opponents said they are reluctant to allocate funds when existing school facilities need major work.

A final decision on whether to have a referendum is expected Monday, Oct 3. A presentation on the facility will be held at the Monday, Sept. 19, board meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Greely High School library.

If scheduled, it wouldn’t be the first time the district voted on an arts center.

A 475-seat facility was approved in 2003 for $5 million, but the bond amount ended up being insufficient to cover construction costs. That forced a $1.5 million follow-up referendum that failed, killing the project, according to Gigi Sanchez, a School Board member who chairs the facilities subcommittee.

Although a $9 million figure was considered this time around, the $9.5 million cap provides “the flexibility that we will not have to go back to the community” for more money, as happened before, Sanchez said. “There are also some contingencies, to some degree, built in.”

She added that a goal will be to bring the price down “significantly lower than” $9.5 million.

In his written recommendation to the School Board in favor of the $9.5 million cap, Superintendent Jeff Porter noted that the “increasingly global nature of the world we live in demands that students possess lifelong transferable skills, often referred to as ’21st Century Learning Skills.’ These skills require, among others, that students be clear and effective communicators, including an emphasis on public speaking, listening, and performance-based arts.”

Porter said the November general election will attract the largest voter turnout – an estimated 80 percent locally.

He said the number of seats in the center could vary between 500 and 700, and, although it may be built at the rear of Greely High School – on a leveled-off area between the 303 Main St. school and the running track – the facility would cater to all K-12 programming and be an asset to the district and the Cumberland-North Yarmouth community.

The arts center is a piece of a broader facilities blueprint in the district’s strategic plan, Porter said.

SAD 51 anticipates renovations or new construction, or both, at the Mabel I. Wilson Elementary School and Greely High School in the next decade that would have to be paid for through borrowing, he added.

“To better define our needs, the district is currently seeking stakeholder input and studying changes in community demographics and housing capacity that will impact enrollment and, in turn, future facility needs,” Porter said. “These efforts will contribute to decisions around facilities priorities and timing over the next decade.”

The center would cost nearly $133,000 to operate, according to Finance Director Scott Poulin. The amount includes $32,000 for a theater manager; $43,000 for a custodian, including benefits; about $39,000 for energy costs, and about $18,000 for maintenance and supplies.

Members of the public who spoke all supported the project. Sentiments included making sure enough money would be available after funding the arts center to address other projects, and also ensuring the facility would be large enough to serve the needs of the district’s entire student body.

But board member Kate Perrin said school crowding is a more urgent concern.

While she appreciates the reconfiguration of existing space at Mabel I. Wilson that took place this summer, she said the school’s population is 200-300 more than what was predicted in 2009.

“There’s no more room for extra classrooms” at Wilson and the middle school, Perrin said. “… I truly feel that we are going into this without all the information at hand.” If capacity issues at those schools are addressed before the arts center is considered, she said, “I could be supportive of this project.”

Member John Simpson, who echoed Perrin’s concern about Wilson school “bursting at the seams,” said “my heart says I’d like to do (the arts center), but I’m also looking at the reality of some of the other things that we have to do.”

Simpson also noted North Yarmouth’s upcoming Memorial School redevelopment project and Cumberland’s fire station expansion study will be major expenses.

“How are taxpayers going to afford this?” he asked. “I think it’s premature to be focusing on one capital improvement item and not doing a cost-benefit analysis of all the others.”

Sanchez, Chairwoman Martha Leggat and School Board members Vickie Bell, Mike Brown, Karen Campbell, Kevin Desmond approved the ballot language, while Perrin and Simpson were opposed.

Member Mike Perfetti was absent, but indicated his support in a letter read at the meeting. The board’s student representatives, Andrew Eckhardt and Hannah Smith, also voted in favor.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

School Administrative District 51 board member Gigi Sanchez, second from left, expresses support for a performing arts center during a Sept. 8 meeting. Chairwoman Martha Leggat, left, and members Kate Perrin and Vickie Bell look on.

The School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors plans to vote Oct. 3 on scheduling a November referendum on a performing arts center.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.