November vote eyed for South Portland High School renovation bond

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The Secondary Schools Facility Committee voted overwhelmingly April 8 to place a $42 million bond for high school renovations on the November ballot.

The recommendation must now be accepted by the School Board, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools Steve Bailey, who said he expects the board to consider the borrowing plan after the fiscal 2011 budget is approved by the City Council and city voters. 

The committee vote was 12-1, and City Councilor Tom Blake was only member to vote against the November referendum. He said current economic uncertainty and the fact that efforts have only recently begun to formulate a communication and marketing plan for the high school renovation.

But Blake had other reasons for opposing the recommendation, too.

“I think the SSFC, the administration and the School Board have credibility issues right now,” Blake said. “Also, we need a victory. I don’t sense this is going to pass at all.”

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin and School Board member Ralph Baxter disagreed.

Baxter said a November referendum is ideal, because the City Council is in tune with the high school’s needs and Mayor Tom Coward has made the high school renovations a priority.

“I wouldn’t bring it forward if I didn’t think we had the support,” Baxter said. “Before I thought it was more of a high school issue, but it’s a community issue. There’s more of a groundswell” of public support.

Godin, meanwhile, said she is confident there is enough time to build support for the bond.

She said the district is having a group of University of Southern Maine students create a video highlighting the school’s deficiencies. The video, which includes interviews with administrators, teachers and students, will be part of a comprehensive communications plan.

Don Russell, of BrandME marketing, has volunteered to help build that communications plan.

Russell said he still believes June 2011 is the best date for a referendum, which will allow enough time for people’s economic anxieties to subside and for the high school information to filter throughout the community.

“I stand by my prior comments that the best chance, in my opinion, that this plan has of winning voter approval is June 2011,” Russell said in an e-mail. “I am a pro bono consultant trying to help them and their cause as best as I can.”

The district originally wanted to float a bond this June, but those plans were put on hold when Godin told the board there would not be enough money in the budget to make the first few years of payments.

However, Godin said the School Board’s proposal to begin funding a reserve account would help offset those costs, much like when the city built new elementary schools.

The board allocated $500,000 for that account this year, but could increase the contribution in future years. That plan seemed to generate support from the City Council at a budget workshop Wednesday night.

At that meeting, Baxter told the council that, while the high school is currently on warning status about accreditation, the school will never actually lose its accreditation – a looming threat that has some parents saying they may move or send their kids to private schools.

“The only way the high school will lose accreditation is if we pull out of the accreditation process,” Baxter said.

Meanwhile, Godin said the district will no longer have to make payments on Skillin School when the high school bond payment start. That would free around $200,000, she said.

If the School Board approves the SSFC recommendation, it will be sent to the City Council, which will make the final decision about whether to send the borrowing plan to voters.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or