2014-02-07 / Front Page

Facilities group begins anew

Committee addresses overwhelming defeat of renovation proposal
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK – The first steps toward a compromise between members of the Facilities Committee and voters were taken on Thursday, Jan. 30 at the monthly Facilities Committee meeting.

The meeting was the first since the decisive Jan. 21 referendum vote when residents voted down a $75 million proposal to renovate three of the district’s five schools.

“How I interpret the results of the referendum: certainly very disappointing for those of us who worked on this, who believed this was the right project for our facilities and our students and for our communities,” said Tim Hussey, a member of the Facilities Committee and the Regional School Unit 21 board of directors. “But the voters spoke clearly ... 70 (to) 30 (percent)was a pretty loud voice, for me at least, that we overreached here, that this was too big of a project for what our community will support,” Hussey said.

Said committee member Jack Reetz, “before we can go on to subsequent steps ... we need to understand why the voters rejected this.”

In the weeks leading up to the vote, many opponents of the project expressed feelings of contempt and censorship over the proposed renovation, which would have been repaid with a 25-year bond, resulting in a considerable tax increase.

Criticism of the high-priced renovation was expressed at meetings and public forums and on social media, oftentimes alongside parents and residents in support of the project.

The emotionally charged vote, which proved to be one of the highest voter-turnouts at a January referendum, typified the dichotomization that has crept into Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.

The objective now, as was discussed at Thursday’s meeting – where the mood was conciliatory – is to gauge public opinion from residents to determine the best way to proceed. Ideas on how to effectively accrue accurate data were proposed by committee members.

Hussey suggested forming focus groups to “survey to understand, in a deeper way, why people voted the way they did.”

Setting up an online suggestion board on the school district’s website was also suggested, as was a quantitative survey and hiring an outside analyst who can conduct formal research to help garner an accurate reading of voters’ preferences.

Bob Domine, committee and school board member, suggested hiring a professional consultant to survey residents of each town to determine “what the factors were in terms of the outcome (of the vote) and how strong each of those factors was,” Domine said.

Hussey was assuring in his efforts to present the options of unbundling the project itself – an option that was not offered prior to the referendum vote.

“There’s a lot of public misunderstanding about whether there is actually any cost saving at all,” said committee member John Sharood. “We need a board-level decision on that before this committee can really be effective in a timely manner.”

Said Superintendent Andrew Dolloff: “What we have not done is to really take a temperature for how the communities of Arundel and Kennebunkport truly feel about the potential for closing their school.

“We have worked from the assumption based on anecdotal data and conversations with folks who are probably largely parents ... That said, there is no tolerance for closing those community schools ... we don’t have accurate data on whether or not Arundel or Kennebunkport would favor closing their school.”

Sharood advocated for having the board cap the budget when factoring in the repairs needed at the three buildings and to use the budget as a guide when moving forward.

“Part of the reason we had 20 different revisions was that there was no budget guiding factor of an overall envelope as to where to set the projects,” Sharood said. “Come back with a concrete proposal to meet the need within the budget that the board sets.

“Otherwise, I’m concerned this will turn into the three-year process we’ve already been through, which is not efficient and not in the public interest.”

Jack Reetz disagreed: “I really object to a top-down approach. It’s clear $75 million is too much, not clear to me, but it’s clear to the voters.”

“I don’t think the board has the foggiest idea of what is the right number, and therefore a top-down approach and setting an arbitrary number I don’t think will do any good,” Reetz said.

The next referendum will either be in June or November.

Hussey made a motion and the committee approved the following steps to conduct a survey and form a focus group; strongly recommend that the revolving renovation article be put in front of the voters again in the next referendum vote; the board’s reconsideration of the elementary school configuration once hard facts are presented.

“Those are three areas of agreements that I think I’ve heard this morning,” Hussey said.

The committee also voted to reconvene the Kennebunk High School building committee after the committee fielded insults about of a lack of leadership from some committee members.

Said committee member and school board member Brad Huot: “My comment might be out of frustration, but how long are we going to be able to keep people’s attention? We have people’s attention now, will we have it in two months, three months, six months? This is a great turnout,” Huot said as he motioned to the crowd. “What do you think our next facilities committee meeting is going to be like? We get board meeting attendance of minimal and then when something big comes up like this, people pay attention, people vote and then we go back to discussing and get low turnouts,” Huot said. “We have to figure out a way to keep people involved and to keep people’s attention because this is not the norm.”

The next Facilities Committee meeting will be at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 13.

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