RSU 5 not giving up on high school renovations

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FREEPORT — A multimillion-dollar plan to renovate Freeport High School was nixed by voters Tuesday, but it’s not over yet.

This November, voters in Durham, Freeport and Pownal might see a modified renovation proposal on their ballots.

The Board of Directors at Regional School Unit 5 voted unanimously Wednesday to take another look at the issue. This time around, however, the district will commission a poll to determine which aspects of the project voters would support at the polls.

Then, at its Sept. 5 meeting, the board will consider a range of options. If any of the options appear viable, the board could call a special meeting on Sept. 18 to discuss the possibility of a new referendum question, said RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh.

The poll, which the board capped at $5,000, will hopefully sort out the district’s varied response to the plan.

Some of those responses were on display at Wednesday’s meeting during discussions by the board and the public, Welsh said. Some people said the bond question should have been separated into two questions to separately deal with improvements to the academic and athletic facilities. Others said the scope of the project could have been reduced, Welsh said.

“We have heard a variety of things. The board wanted to get more information about the specifics,” she said.

The board’s decision authorizes several parties to work together to conduct the poll:  the superintendent, the board chair, the vice chair, the project’s architect and a polling company. The decision also extends the life of the Facilities Advisory Committee — the group that had developed the $16.9 million renovation proposal that voters rejected by a slim margin Tuesday, 2,202–2,028.

The committee has now been tasked with considering “which options, if any, we should bring back to the board,” Welsh said.

“Do we try to reduce some of the renovations? Do we try to do some of it with our local budget, as compared to a bond? Did people need more information?” she said.

The deadline for submitting a referendum question is 30 days prior to the election, but the board would seek to do it sooner, if appropriate, Welsh said.

“We want to make sure our voters are informed,” she said.

A polling company has not been hired yet, Welsh said. The immediate step is for the group to meet, which could happen as early as next week.

Welsh said she and many others were disappointed by the outcome of Tuesday’s vote.

“The facilities committee had invested so much time and energy in the project,” she said. “We were all very disappointed, because we truly understand the needs of the kids in that high school. There is overcrowding. It needs renovations. And the security and safety issues need to be addressed.

“This would have been the perfect time to make the changes with a bond, due to the interest rates.”

The defeated $16.9 million bond proposal called for renovations and several additions to the high school, including nine new classrooms. The plan also called for an eight-lane track and athletic field to replace the current grass field.

The building, which dates back to 1961, has had previous additions in 1968, 1974, 1985 and 2003. The most recent addition added six science classrooms and a performing arts center.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.