RSU 1 voters face decision on $5.2M bond

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WEST BATH — A Regional School Unit 1 public forum Wednesday focused not on a petition to withdraw from the district, or a lawsuit over funding, but rather on a $5.2 million bond question.

Voters in the RSU’s five communities on Nov. 5 will decide whether to fund improvements at several RSU 1 schools. The School Board voted Sept. 23 to place the question on the ballot.

Wednesday’s meeting at the West Bath School was preceded by an Oct. 9 forum on the bond at Woolwich Central School, and meetings at Morse High School and Phippsburg Elementary School, respectively, follow on the next two Wednesdays: Oct. 23 and 30.

RSU 1 includes Bath, Arrowsic, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich.

Superintendent of Schools Patrick Manuel has called the improvements necessary to improve building safety and help prevent shutdowns.

About $3.5 million of the bond would cover work at Morse High School, including windows ($290,000), science lab upgrades ($250,000), some ventilation system replacement ($1.2 million), upgrade of the building’s electrical distribution ($200,000), and replacement of steam supply and temperature controls ($900,000).

Another $833,000 would be spent at the elementary schools; $393,000 at Bath Middle School, and $139,000 at the Bath Regional Career and Technical Center. Securing of front entrances is proposed at all the schools.

No work is proposed at the new Woolwich Central School, and $294,000 would be set aside for contingencies.

The improvements at Morse are aimed toward maintaining the building until state funding is available for a new high school, hopefully within 10 years, Manuel has said, noting that Morse is 11th on the state funding list.

The work is needed “for the safety of the building for staff and students, as well as (to) prevent a catastrophic shutdown of the building,” according to the superintendent.

Morse’s windows have in some cases been falling in or not correctly secured, and water has also been penetrating the gaps around those windows, Manuel has said.

Science lab upgrades are proposed because, in a recent accreditation, the only area where Morse was faulted was its facilities, particularly the science labs, Manuel has said.

Some roughly 50 people at Wednesday’s meeting questioned the need for putting so much money into Morse, when it may be replaced in a decade.

“This district inherited Bath’s problem, and now we’re being asked to finance their way out … and we don’t even know what we’re going to do with the building, as a district,” West Bath resident Steve Kalisz said. “We’ve gone from a city to a much bigger district that doesn’t have a plan yet. We’re jumping to take care of Bath’s old problems, before we even know where we’re going to go for the next 10, 20 years as a new district.”

School Board Chairman Tim Harkins noted that Facilities Director Dave Richards has put improvements proposed in the bond in budgets over the past seven years, “and they get cut, because people don’t want to see an increase in their taxes.”

Annual debt payments on the 10-year bond would increase as existing debt decreases in order to minimize a tax hike. The impact of the bond itself in the first year could be about a 1 percent increase.

Another West Bath resident, Bill Haggett, argued that Morse High “is in dire need of major work. It’s almost disgraceful to have to send students there.”

He noted that $5 million is a lot of money, but that if it goes toward providing a better facility “for our kids for 10, or 12, or 15 years, then we have to do it. … And I trust that the the School Board, and the staff, and the superintendent will exercise their very best judgement in terms of priorities that surface; that should be where the funds should be spent, given the fact that this school has a finite life span.”

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

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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.