FREEPORT — The Regional School Unit 5 Board of Directors voted 9-2 Wednesday night to send a proposed $16.9 million Freeport High School expansion to a June referendum.
“The reality is this is a community school and it’s the center of our community in many, many ways,” Board Chairman Nelson Larkins said before the panel voted. “If we leave things the way they are, (students) are going to have a substandard education.
“Overall, the price tag is frightening,” Larkins continued. “If you break it down and spread it out over the 13,000 people … it still hurts and it still costs money, but that’s how we do it as a community.”
The vote, preceded by about two dozen public comments, was largely applauded by the audience of Freeport, Pownal and Durham residents.
Freeport resident Geoff Nelson said the board made the right decision and he hopes voters will pass the bond in June.
“I’m comfortable with it. It’s a good investment,” Nelson said. “It’ll be great to have more space. Seeing who the investment in the school is for, it’s easy to make the investment in the future.”
For others, the cost of the project, combined with the current economy, is too much to bear.
“This is not a state-funded building. This is all coming out of our taxes,” said Durham resident Chuck Paulick. “With what’s coming down from the state and what they’re not going to pay, can we as taxpayers afford this addition?”
The conceptual design calls for renovating the school and recommends several additions, including nine new classrooms, and an eight-lane track and athletic field to replace the current grass field.
The two dissenting votes were from Pownal board members Ruth Broene and Kathryn Brown, who said the costs to residents in their town will be too great if the referendum passes.
“There’s a resentment, a feeling of helplessness, that if we can’t fix this problem, I don’t see Pownal ever supporting a project like this,” Brown said during the board’s discussion.
Student-athletes spoke about the need for a new field and said the grass field is often torn up after wet weather, making it unplayable and potentially dangerous. One student said they have been filling the field’s holes with cat litter.
The new track and turf field would be built behind the school and include facilities for discus, shot put, high jump, long jump, pole vault and javelin.
The high school is one of three in Class B that does not have its own track and field, making scheduling difficult, plan proponents said. The existing field will be used as a multi-purpose practice field.
Others at the meeting talked about overcrowding.
Kirk Cameron, a Freeport resident, recalled a day when he had to pick up his son from school for an emergency during lunch time.
“It was like running the gauntlet or swimming upstream like a salmon,” Cameron said of the school’s cafeteria. “Kids were eating lunch where they shouldn’t be. … I can’t remember why I needed to pick him up, but I remember that.”
High school enrollment is projected to increase from 540 students today to more than 650 in the next decade, according to the RSU. The additions would accommodate those students and allow for the possibility of growth by equipping a proposed 31,000-square-foot addition to support a third floor and leaving the potential to convert student study areas into classrooms.
As it’s designed, the expansion could handle up to 800 students.
Other key changes to the building include new Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics programming, updated computer labs, a new entrance and bus drop-off, additional visitor parking, and the construction of a new kitchen and food court. The existing cafeteria would be converted into space for the school library.
The renovation also will make the building compliant with the requirements of the American’s with Disabilities Act.
The building, which dates to 1961, has had previous additions in 1986, 1974, 1985 and 2003. The most recent addition added six science classrooms and a performing arts center.
The proposed renovation is expected to extend the life of the building approximately 30 years.
“This will be a gem in our community,” Freeport resident David Latulippe said. “We’re going to be looking back in five to 10 years and say that’s the best investment we could have made in our community.”