Plan to spend up to $39M for Wentworth School goes to Scarborough voters in November

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SCARBOROUGH — Voters will decide in November whether to spend up to $39.1 million on a new Wentworth Intermediate School.

After months of planning, presentations, estimates and schematics, the Wentworth Building Committee got a resolution from the Town Council on Wednesday to send the decision to a Nov. 8 referendum.

The council vote was 5-0, with Councilors Jessica Holbrook and Ronald Ahlquist absent.

Now it’s up to supporters to convince voters to approve the plan – no small task, considering a similar, slightly more expensive, proposal was rejected by voters in 2006.

Language in the referendum would cap spending on the project at $37.7 million, with an option for a geothermal heating and cooling system priced at just under an additional $1.4 million. Though the committee has recommended combining the two items into one ballot question for a total cost of not more than $39.1 million, the final referendum wording is yet to be written.

Those numbers are down from an estimate of $41.3 million for the school and geothermal system just a week ago. Since then, the committee has removed from the plan a proposal for a large playing field, a shed, and a rear parking lot. Those cuts saved the project about $590,000.

The price of the geothermal system also dropped since the last meeting, after committee members adjusted for errors in earlier calculations.

Committee Chairman Paul Koziel said he expects the cost to keep going down, hence the language in the resolution for the total “not to exceed” the new figure.

“We wanted a financially responsible project that would serve the teachers, the students, and the community as a whole,” Koziel said. “I think that’s what we’ve brought before you tonight.”

About 775 third- through fifth-grade students attend Wentworth. Supporters say the school must be replaced because of asbestos, overcrowding, poor design and a lack of air conditioning in the warm months.

The new Wentworth would stand two stories and contain 40 classrooms. It would feature a large, internal courtyard to maximize natural light to classrooms, and a large gym.

The school would be home to operations larger than just Wentworth: The high school basketball and track teams would be expected to use the gym, the kitchen would provide food for all public schools, and space would be reserved for community services.

The building would total about 163,000 square feet, for a construction price of about $240 per square foot, if the plan includes the geothermal heating and cooling system.

The committee is recommending the council include the geothermal system, arguing that while it costs more initially, its lower operating costs will have it paying for itself within 20 years.

“A 50-year building with a less than 20-year payback for a geothermal system is worth it,” said Cliff Greim of Harriman Associates.

The council’s approval frees up supporters of the project to start pitching their concept to voters.

Kelly Murphy, chairwoman of the building committee’s Public Information Subcommittee, said she has a list of 400 residents willing to volunteer for the campaign.

The group already has a website and a Facebook page, and Murphy reiterated the group’s earlier offer to give guided tours of the existing intermediate school, explaining along the way why a new building is needed.

“We have a small crew working to get the wheels on an actual campaign now,” Murphy said. That includes organizing neighborhood leaders and spreading the word. Koziel said the group would officially kick off its education campaign at SummerFest on Aug. 19.

In other business Wednesday, councilors:

• Approved a change to the town’s zoning ordinance that increases the maximum allowable building coverage on any parcel of land in an industrial zone from 35 percent to 50 percent.

The move came after one of the town’s biotech companies reportedly told the Scarborough Economic Development Corp. that they wanted to expand, but couldn’t because of the zoning restriction.

“We don’t want companies leaving Scarborough because they can’t expand,” said Harvey Rosenfeld, SEDCO president.

Rosenfeld told councilors that the ordinance for regular commercial zones included the 50 percent coverage rule, and that industrial businesses typically present fewer parking and pedestrian safety issues than standard retail or commercial outlets.

“No one even knows why this was set at 35 percent to begin with,” Rosenfeld said.

• Approved “The Vision: An Economic Development Guide for Scarborough, Maine.”

The guide is the result of a three-year joint project undertaken by SEDCO, the local Community Chamber of Commerce, town staff and residents. It lays out plans for Scarborough to achieve 10 “visions” related to economic development.

Its goals include marketing Scarborough to potential businesses and residents, making the town a leader in green policies and practice, investing in education, keeping the cost of doing business in the town reasonable, and ensuring a fair, consistent and timely planning and development process.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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