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School bonds a $5M decision for Falmouth voters

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School bonds a $5M decision for Falmouth voters

FALMOUTH — Heating, energy efficiency and classroom space are all part of two proposed bond issues totaling $5 million for improvements at Falmouth Middle School.

The bonds, which go to voters on June 11, would replace the steam-heating system with a water-heated system that will allow the school to use the more efficient wood-chip boiler. This would also allow the department to connect the middle school heating system to the elementary and high school system. This bond also includes installing new heaters and windows. 

The other bond would replace and strengthen the school's roof and renovate classrooms to provide more teaching space.

Superintendent of Schools Barbara Powers said the middle school was built in the 1950s and still has many of its original parts, including the dated steam-heat piping powered by the oil-fired boiler. Proponents of the bonds say it would help increase efficiency and lower costs.

"We've nursed (the oil boiler) for the last couple of years," Powers said, noting that oil boiler requires significant maintenance to keep it running. "Frankly, I've been worried about a complete failure."

Powers said oil costs at the middle school are about $80,000 a year, and in the winter months can be as much as $1,000 per day.

The 60-year-old system reached the end of its normal lifespan in the 1980s, said Dan O'Shea, director of finance and operations for the School Department. If the bond is passed, the steam-system would be replaced by a hot-water system powered by the wood chip boiler that O'Shea said is more efficient and will be about a quarter of the cost of the oil system to operate.

O'Shea said the aged system is long overdue for a replacement and has breaks in the piping about half a dozen times a year. The breaks require staff to order custom-built piping for replacements, because some parts no longer exist. Each break costs between $3,000 to $5,000, O'Shea said.

The system also leaks and can result in increased floor temperatures that have caused damage to the flooring, requiring parts of hallways to be blocked off.

In 2011, voters approved a $2 million project to install the wood chip boiler. The project used $1.5 million in capital reserve funds and a $500,000 grant from the Maine Forest Service.

In addition to the new heating system, which is the largest portion of the bond at $2.73 million, the borrowing would also include $400,000 to replace windows and $120,000 to install additional attic insulation.

The school windows are the original, low-efficiency, single-pane windows and often blow open during strong wind gusts, officials said. The added insulation is also expected to create better heating and energy efficiency.

The other school bond would pay for structural repair and roof replacement for the cafeteria, library and lower gym roofs. It also includes money for renovating science and music classrooms.

The roof upgrades are needed to bring the building up to code, primarily to meet snow-load requirements, O'Shea said.

Roof upgrades would add support to the wooden arches in the cafeteria, provide new shingles and add insulated panels.

The science classrooms will be reconfigured to provide more efficient use of space, freeing up enough room to move two English classes out of the music area, Powers said.  The chorus class will move from a portable classroom into the main school building, with the rest of the music classes.

In total, the reconfiguration will create two new classrooms.

Eighth-grade science teacher Carey Hotaling said the design of her science lab room creates safety hazards for students when they conduct experiments with chemicals and that her classroom no longer accommodates the modern teaching style.

"(The renovations) would just be an update for safety and be more flexible for us in the current way we teach," Hotaling said, noting the lack of space in the lab room and the difficulty of maneuvering between crowded desks. "The way we teach now has them do the work and we assist."

The estimate for the renovations of the science and music rooms is $1.1 million, while roof repairs are expected to cost about $650,000.

Powers said while the elementary and high schools were replaced recently, the School Board discussed replacing the middle school two years ago, but opted not to because of the expense.

The middle school, she said, needs the bonds to bring it up to par with the other schools.

"It just truly needs a face-lift," Powers said.

Voters on June 11 will also have to decide the fate of a proposed $11.7 million bond to overhaul Route 1. That bond is intended to remake Route 1 into a more village-like district through zoning changes.

The bond is expected to be paid for through tax-increment financing, which will set aside property tax money from businesses to help fund the project.

No tax increase is expected from the Route 1 bond, although if the TIF fails to raise enough money to cover the costs, the town will likely have to obtain the funding through property taxes.

This story was corrected May 30.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.