SCARBOROUGH — Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said “It’s like deja vu all over again.” This quote is very applicable to the latest proposed referendum question for the Wentworth Intermediate School.
Five years ago a $38.3 million ballot question was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. The $39.1 million proposal on the November ballot this year may suffer a similar fate because, once again, the size proposed clearly exceeds the need.
The proposal is for a 163,000-square-foot building for 800 students. This results in 203 square feet per student. The state requirement, as per the Department of Education, for these grade levels is 125 square feet per student. The 15th annual Construction Report published in School Planning and Management documents the national median is 125 square feet per student at these grade levels. Did anyone on the design team think to ask why Scarborough needs a school that has 78 more square feet per student – 62 percent – than the state requirement and national median?
These are tough economic times. Folks are having trouble paying their bills and maintaining employment. Scarborough recently invested $26.9 million in the high school renovation. Every dollar of this amount comes from the pockets of taxpayers, which makes it the most expensive locally funded project in the history of the state of Maine. The town can ill afford to support a project that appears to be cost prohibitive ($66 million combining principal and interest), as well as for a building that is far beyond the needs of the community.
I don’t think there is much debate that Wentworth Intermediate School should be replaced at some point. That said, the Department of Education earlier this year released the priority list for school construction projects. There are 71 projects listed. Wentworth is not even on the list. Did the school district even apply for state aid? If not, then why not? The fact is Wentworth was ranked 51st (out of 66) on the previous state list. One would think if the need is so great then the state would have had Wentworth ranked much higher.
Another issue of concern is the removal of the athletic field and some parking from the proposal. These items are part of the project and would likely be funded in later capital budgets. This appears to be a clever way of lowering the cost; only that it doesn’t lower the cost. It merely moves these inevitable costs to another area of the town budget, which appears to be a bit disingenuous. The district is also adding significant cost to the project for geothermal heating. Westbrook Middle School, designed by the same architects, has geothermal heating, which isn’t working properly and already needs to be repaired even though the building is barely 1 year old, according to the Portland Press Herald.
The voters rejected the 2006 proposal, which was for a building with 197 square feet per student, 5,176 (61 percent) to 3,316 (39 percent). That proposal was in a robust economy. I would suggest a no vote on this ballot question and advise the school district to bring a more modest proposal – at least 33 percent less than the current proposal – that would seem to strike a better balance between the needs of the school district and affordability for taxpayers.
Jeffrey Messer served on the Scarborough Town Council for 12 years, including six as chairman, from 1996-2008. He also served on the Scarborough High School Facilities Committee and the Scarborough High School Building Committee.