s-spschoolbond-011609 Board scraps plan for high school bond

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The School Board, blaming the recession and future economic uncertainties, has decided not to send voters another bond for high school renovations.
Instead, the School Department will concentrate on small-scale improvements to the school. The board will hold a workshop in February to discuss how to fund those improvements.
Monday’s unanimous decision not to borrow, which was expected to be submitted as a bond referendum next November, was recommended by the Secondary Schools Facility Committee. The committee has been working on renovation plans for the high school and middle schools since 2003.
The panel recommended dropping the bond after concluding that residents, who voted by a 3-1 margin against a $56 million bond in 2007, would not support it.
“Right now, we don’t have that buy-in from the community,” School Board Chairwoman Stacy Gato said.
But some board members argued that now is the perfect time to solicit bids for a full renovation, believing that idle contractors would bid aggressively for the project.
“It’s a time where a lot of people are looking for work and there is a lot of competition,” board member Sarah Goldberg said. “If we want to be saving the taxpayers money, we should be doing this right now.”
The facilities committee had been working with architects on scaling down the original $56 million renovation plan. But the panel, which will no longer meet, could only trim the project back to about $50 million.
Instead of pursuing a full renovation, the board accepted a maintenance plan that includes projects over one-, three- and five-year periods for the high school and Mahoney and Memorial middle schools.
The one-year maintenance plan for the high school calls for $5.5 million in upgrades to electrical systems, fire safety systems, emergency lighting, building security, flooring, stairwells and ceiling and roof systems. It also includes $1.6 million to replace the north annex window wall.
The three-year plan is expected to cost an additional $7.8 million, mostly on new mechanical systems, kitchen upgrades and new lighting and ceilings.
The five-year plan, expected to cost an additional $5.5 million, would include installing an elevator and renovating the Beal Gymnasium locker rooms, among other projects.
Board member Ralph Baxter, who serves on the facilities committee and reluctantly supported its recommendation, said the maintenance plan, which for the high school is projected to cost nearly $19 million, would not address classroom sizes and a lack of programming space.
“To me that is very troubling,” he said.
More importantly, however, Baxter said the maintenance plan is only projected to get the high school through the next 20 years, whereas a full renovation would last 50 years.
“In a way, it’s a failure,” Baxter said of the recommendation. “This is not what’s best for kids and education. I absolutely do not think this is the best plan out there.”
Baxter said the committee reached its recommendation after reviewing the results of an exit poll conducted last Election Day. That poll suggested voters felt strongly that something needed to be done to the high school, but a more than $50 million renovation is not the answer.
Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said she expects deficiencies at the high school will be highlighted by an accreditation committee that evaluated the school last fall. While the accreditation report will not be complete until spring, Godin said the district has seen preliminary findings.
“It’s very clear that the facility is going to be the lion’s share of the recommendations for the high school,” she said.
It is expected to cost $12.3 million and $9.7 million, respectively, to implement the maintenance plans at Memorial and Mahoney middle schools.
The district had been waiting for the state to open up the application process for school construction funds, hoping to build a consolidated middle school at Memorial’s Wescott Road site.
But after the recent state budget shortfalls, board members were skeptical that would happen anytime soon. If it does, the board can reconvene the facilities committee and submit an application.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-361 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.