Divided South Portland council plans vote on $44.2M bond for high school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday, Aug. 23, will conduct a first reading of a proposed $44.2 million bond referendum for high school renovations.

The proposal, however, is only a place holder that will allow the council to conduct a second reading on Sept. 8, the deadline for placing the question on the November ballot.

It is possible the council will reduce the amount proposed to be borrowed.

The council concensus was reached at the end of a five-hour meeting Wednesday night that had councilors clashing with each other and a resident frequently critical of the schools.

Councilors could not reach a clear agreement on supporting the $47 million renovation proposal by the School Board.

While three councilors supported the proposal, the remaining councilors said they could not support borrowing more than $39 million.

Some councilors, even those in favor of the full renovation proposal, were skeptical that voters would approve a large bond, given the current economy.

“I have to be completely honest,” said Councilor Tom Blake, who served on the Secondary School Facility Committee and supported the $44.2 million bond Wednesday. “I don’t think this will pass in November.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher was among the councilors who expressed support for the full renovation.

Beecher recited a list of examples where she said the city cut corners on major projects to save money, only to pay the price later. Those included the municipal pool, the high school auditorium and a City Hall addition.

“You know, it’s crap,” she said of the City Hall job. “And we’re living with that.”

Mayor Tom Coward was among those trying to reduce the cost of the plan to make it more palatable to voters, who turned down a $56 million renovation bond by a 3-1 margin 2007.

“I don’t want this to go down in flames,” Coward said. “I’d rather have a scaled-down project that gets done.”

The meeting came on the heels of an independent review of the plan drafted by Harriman Associates.

Tom Frederick of Wright Ryan reviewed the construction costs of the plan, while a review by Bob Howe of HKTA Architects looked at how the plan compared to other school projects, whether it would meet state requirements and whether the project made sense. 

The reviewers told the council on Monday night that the proposed plan was reasonable. But Howe said several components of the plan should be questioned.

The proposed renovation would result in a 286,000-square-foot, 1,100-student building,  a 95,000-square-foot increase over the current school. That works out to 259 square feet per student, he said, which is larger than other schools, like Windham, which has 200 square foot per student.

Howe also questioned seven proposed team rooms, totalling 7,800 square feet, where classes could come together for interdisciplinary studies and where teachers can work on lesson plans outside of class.

A new 16,000-square-foot, 400-student cafeteria, a large main entry way, a larger-than-average music room and 6,000 square feet of undesignated basement space were also questioned.

However, Frederick said the only way to drastically reduce costs is to compress the building footprint.

“That’s where the biggest bang for the dollar comes from,” he said. “To get millions of dollars out of this you’re going to have to take substantial square footage out of the programming.”

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, who called for a $35 million bond, rebutted that assertion on Monday night and again on Wednesday night, noting that team rooms, the cafeteria and main entryway are not necessary for programming. 

“We’re doing the programming in that horrific building now,” the former high school employee said on Monday. “I don’t want us to get caught up in this quagmire … that we’re taking things aways from kids.”

But Councilor Linda Boudreau on Wednesday said the School Department had satisfactorily answered questions raised in the report. She warned against arbitrary cuts to the plan that would water down public and council support.

“I think we need to do it and do it right. I think this is the right project,” she said. “I think (the public) just want to know they’re getting value for every penny they agreed to spend. … I think every rock has been turned over.”

Resident John Spritz agreed.

“It’s the project that is going to sell this,” Spritz said. “I think it’s a huge mistake to cut things out. You’ve got to have a dynamite project, or it’s going to fail.”

Not everyone agreed. At one point, resident Albert DiMillo, who has taken out nomination papers for an at-large seat on the council, accused school officials of lying about the square footage.

DiMillo, who spoke from the audience, was shouted down by the mayor, who told him to “be quiet right now” or leave. DiMillo left, hurling insults at school officials as he walked out.

By the end of the night, it was clear the council had reached an impasse. Since Beecher would not be at the first reading on Monday, a $44.2 million bond proposal would likely fail in its first reading.

Councilor Tom Blake supported the full bond, even though he said he believed it would fail in November. Councilor Patti Smith said she could support the full bond, but would rather put forward a $39 million plan. Councilor Jim Hughes did not support the full plan, joining those seeking a $39 million bond.

Tempers flared at the end of the meeting when Boudreau asked the city manger to speak with the city attorney about allowing Beecher to vote on Aug. 23 via conference call. That drew a strong rebuke from De Angelis.

“Inappropriate,” she asserted. “We don’t do that on any other vote, unless its a vote you want, Linda.”

Councilors are looking for a bond amount that can get near-unanimous support from the council to give the public more confidence in the plan.

By proposing a $44.2 million bond, the council may reduce that amount at the second reading, but may not increase it.

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

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