South Portland council sends $41.5M high school renovation bond to voters

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents will be asked in November if they want to approve a $41.5 million bond to renovate and expand South Portland High School.

The City Council voted 5-2 Wednesday evening to send the bond question to the ballot, with councilors Rosemarie De Angelis and Jim Hughes opposed.

The bond amount was reduced from a previously cited $44.2 million after Finance Director Greg L’Heureux presented a plan to begin collecting taxes for the bond immediately instead of waiting until the project begins, thus reducing the total bond amount and using some of the collected surplus to reduce the tax rate during the most expensive years of the bond.

A similar referendum asking for a $56 million renovation bond, failed at the polls in 2007.

However, now South Portland is on the warning list for possible loss of accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges for the poor condition of the 1952-section of the high school building. Asbestos, air-quality and handicap-accessibility issues all contribute to the NEASC’s listing. 

The more than three-hour discussion of the project began Wednesday night with a public hearing. The vast majority of the 25 people who spoke were in favor of the project, many citing the loss of accreditation and the associated decrease in property values as their reasons.

Many of those who spoke said they would move out of the town or send their children to private school if the high school lost its accreditation. 

“If this doesn’t pass, it’s going to really hurt this city,” said resident Bill Arnold, who said no one in his family ever attended school in South Portland, but that he was still in favor of the project. “South Portland is going to look like a second class city if this doesn’t pass.”

During the council discussion of the issue, De Angelis expressed concern that the project’s total cost of $47 million needed to be clearly explained to the voters.

“I think it’s misleading if we do not put out clearly to the voters what the cost of this project is,” De Angelis said of the $41.5 million number appearing on the ballot. “It’s money they’re going to be paying for this project and they need to know that in real dollars.”

L’Heureux explained that the total project cost included some smaller improvements to the school that had already been approved by voters but were being postponed so they could be completed with in conjunction with the reconstruction. 

De Angelis, who emphasized the burden of a tax increase, asked that the council consider a smaller bond that would cover only what was necessary to remove the high school from NEASC’s warning list.

Other councilors spoke out in support of the bond.

“Delaying one minute longer is a mistake,” said Councilor Patty Smith. “Is this going to be a sacrifice? Absolutely. But this is not a one-year vote. This is a 20-year vote.”

In the end, Mayor Tom Coward emphasized the thoroughness of the process the town staff, School Board and City Council used in vetting the project before sending it to the voters.

“This project may not be perfect, but if we make perfect the enemy of good, we never get anywhere,” he said. “There’s a difference between spending and investment. This is an investment.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or