Newly-built Topsham area high school gets support at forum

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HARPSWELL — Voters may decide in November 2016 whether to renovate Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham – the center of School Administrative District 75 – or build it anew.

At the second of four public forums on the matter, held Tuesday at Harpswell Community School, some members of the audience expressed favor for building a new facility on the current campus.

The “new vs. reno” analysis is the fifth stage of a 21-step, state-developed process that will include two public straw votes, according to the SAD 75 website. The first vote, and next step of the process, will be on the project location. The second straw vote, which will decide the building concept, is the twelfth step.

Positive results at both votes will trigger a referendum on whether to fund the project. Four approvals by the state Board of Education are also required along the way.

SAD 75 has applied for state school construction funding since 1999, and the building ranked seventh in 2014 on a state construction funding list. The existing two-story building was constructed with an “open concept” in 1973, and has been dubbed a “school with no walls.”

“The idea was to have very communal classes, with lots of collegiality; in theory, it was a great idea,” Kathy Kahill of Portland-based architectural firm PDT, hired by SAD 75 to work on the project, told Tuesday’s audience. “Execution was horrible, as you have probably all experienced.”

Current energy costs at the school are $1.23 per square foot, while a new or renovated building could decrease that cost to 93 cents, producing $45,000 a year in savings, Kahill said.

Kahill presented different cost scenarios that related to which course the district opts to take. The lowest, “baseline” cost would be for new construction, with all students staying in the existing school during that project. Major renovation, with half the students in portable classrooms and the rest in another district building, could add $2.9 million to that baseline, while major renovation, placing all students in portables, could add $4.4 million.

New construction would be comparatively cheaper. Housing half the students in portables and the rest at Mt. Ararat Middle School could add $1.6 million to the baseline, while housing all students in portables during new construction could add $3.1 million.

Those numbers reflect a recent draft facilities study by PDT, which concluded that the high school should be rebuilt on its current site, and that the cost to renovate the school will exceed that of rebuilding it.

Renovation also takes longer than new construction, Kahill noted.

John Hodge, chairman of the project’s Building Committee, noted that the panel usually meets the first Wednesday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at the high school’s Learning Commons area.

“Those meetings are open to the public … we want to hear from you; we need your feedback,” he said.

The Building Committee will make a recommendation to the School Board, which then presents that proposal to the state.

The final forum will be held at Mt. Ararat High School on Wednesday, Sept. 30, from 6-7:30 p.m.

Log onto for more information, and to offer feedback on the project.

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

Brad Smith, superintendent of School Administrative District 75, opens a public forum Tuesday at Harpswell Community School on the Mt. Ararat High School rebuilding/renovation project. He stands in front of several possible scenarios for how a new school could be placed on the existing Topsham campus.

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.