South Portland bond: Voters asked to borrow $41.5M to fix high school

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Voters on Nov. 2 will be asked to borrow $41.5 million to renovate and expand South Portland High School.

The bond is being sought because there is no state funding to address facility problems that have earned the school a warning from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that its accreditation is in jeopardy.

NEASC noted the general structural decay of the school, in addition to several specific issues, including noncompliance with building and handicapped accessibility codes’ poor heating and air ventilation systems; outdated electrical systems; leaky roofs and toilets, and a lack of hot water in the restrooms.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin has said the school will not lose its accreditation, as long as it continues to pay dues to membership-based NEASC. But the school could be placed on probation, she said.

In addition to the $41.5 million bond, taxpayers will also have to pay interest estimated at $19.6 million, bringing the total borrowing cost up to $61.1 million.

In 2007, voters rejected a $56 million bond (a figure that didn’t include interest) by a 3-1 margin.

According to projections provided by City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, the total, 20-year cost of the bond for owners of a home assessed at $200,000 would be more than $3,600. The cost to owners of a $400,000 home would be nearly $7,300, while the cost for owners of a $150,000 home would be more than $2,700.

Homeowners would pay the most in 2015, when the project would cost those taxpayers $213, $426 and $164, respectively.

Those figures, L’Heureux said, are for the high school project alone and do not account for increases in the city and school operating budgets, or changes in he city’s valuation.

Bpnd boosters argue that repairs are needed not only to protect accreditation, but to improve the health and safety of students. Opponents, however, believe the plan is excessive and could be done for less money.

A political action committee, RenewSPHS, has been working over the last few weeks to convince voters to support the bond.

RenewSPHS spokesman Jeff Selser said the group has been giving presentations to community, church and school groups in addition to putting up signs, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers, and campaigning door-to-door.

“We’ve been speaking to anyone who will listen,” Selser said. “It’s been a tremendous effort by a lot of people. The response has been really, really positive.”

There are several main points the group is trying to convey, Selser said.

First, he said, the current school is unhealthy, unsafe and not secure. In addition to poor air quality, there are 21 entrances to the school that cannot be monitored, he said; the renovation would create two monitored, public entrances.

Selser also said students will be at a disadvantage when applying for college, because their transcripts will indicate that the school is on probation, but will not explain why.

Selser said strong schools equal strong communities. Having a new high school will increase property values, he said, and attract new residents and businesses to the city.

He said the timing is perfect for the project, since construction prices are at historic lows and the city has one of the strongest bond ratings in the state.

“This is a very good plan at the best possible time,” Selser said.

But not everyone agrees.

City Council candidate Albert DiMillo Jr. has made his opposition to the school bond the focal point of his campaign. The other three candidates support the bond.

DiMillo’s only campaign signs say “Vote no SPHS expansion” and claim the plan “includes $27 million in waste.”

He accuses the School Department of lying about the plan by saying the project is a renovation, when it will actually increase the size of the building by 50 percent, from about 200,000 square feet to about 300,000 square feet. The square footage per student will be one of the highest in the state, he said.

Meanwhile, the project would rebuild relatively new portions of the school, like the cafeteria, DiMillo said, and contains “team rooms” that would not be approved if it were a state-funded project.

“There is nothing about this project that makes sense,” he said.

While DiMillo claims there is $27 million in waste in the plan, Selser said those calculations do not account for the realities and complexities of construction.

Much of the cost, Selser said, is for site work, and the extra square footage is being driven by the decision to keep three anchors of school: Beal Gym, the South Portland Auditorium and the original portion of the school at Highland Avenue and Mountain View Road.

“(DiMillo) is a whiz with numbers, but he’s not a construction professional,” Selser said.

More information about the project can be found at SPSD.org. DiMillo can be reached at aadimillo@yahoo.com.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements


South Portland Mayor Tom Coward speaks during an Oct. 2 rally for the RenewSPHS campaign in the high school gym. Residents will vote Nov. 2 on a $41.5 million bond referendum to upgrade the school.

A rendering, from above the Community Center and looking up Mountain View Avenue, of what South Portland High School might look if voters approve a $41.5 million bond to renovate and expand the school.

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