2014-02-21 / Community

Facilities committee plans school survey

Purpose is to gauge public interest in closing an elementary school
By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — In addition to approving the proposed 2015 school budget at the Facilities Committee meeting on Feb. 13, members of the committee continued to grapple with steps to be taken in response to the voters’ rejection of the $75 million renovation referendum in January.

At the on Jan. 30 meeting members voted to put out a request for proposals to conduct a survey to gauge public interest in closing one of the district’s three elementary schools.

The board also decided to implement a public comment section on the RSU 21 website, which is now accessible. It is unclear from Thursday’s meeting, however, what the next steps will be toward refitting a referendum that residents will support.

Committee member Tim Hussey presented an independent preliminary plan, to the chagrin of some other board members, wherein the scope of all three projects would be trimmed via individual building committees.

For example, Hussey proposed reducing the scope of the athletic fields at Kennebunk High School, i.e. no artificial turf, the option of having only one gym, and keeping the music and art programs in the high school proper. The total cost of the high school portion of renovation would then be reduced from $55 million to approximately $45 million.

Hussey also recommended severing the district’s tie with the Southern Maine Center for Visual and Performing Arts.

“We’ve given that a good try. This was part of the reason there was public opposition to the entire project, and I don’t think it’s realistic,” Hussey said.

To reduce the scope of the renovations at Consolidated School in Kennebunkport, Hussey proposed the school board of directors return to the master facilities proposal from 2012, which did not include expanding the footprint or a replacing the gym.

This would shave the project cost from approximately $10 million to $6 million. Mildred L. Day was reduced from about $12 million to $10 million.

The combined cost reduction, Hussey said, would bring the total down to be approximately $59 million — a 20 percent reduction.

Hussey’s plan is just one example of likely future cost reduction propositions made by the school board of directors, the Facilities Committee and the Finance Committee in coming months.

There seemed to be a lack of agreement among committee members about whether a poll of all three towns is necessary to determine the favorability among residents to close one of the elementary schools.

Said Jack Reetz, committee member from Arundel: “There has been a clear decision: (withdrawal) efforts both in Arundel and Kennebunkport have not succeeded; they (residents) want to keep schools open.

The language of the Regional School Unit 21 charter, Reetz said, requires that each town keep one elementary school open.

“It seems to me that considering closing either school will simply tear apart the fabric of this district. I know there are folks who have a hard time drawing lines around all three towns and looking at us as a single entity,” Reetz said. “I think if you seriously go out and poll you will be tearing apart the fabric that we’ve built over the last five years and it will likely lead to withdrawal by both towns.”

“We have not tested the public’s willingness,” Hussey told Reetz. “A vote to stay in the RSU is not a vote to keep a school open; those are distinct. I would love to test that and I don’t believe asking a non-binding question is tearing the community apart.”

John Sharood echoed Reetz.

“I don’t believe the board has taken a strong enough policy stance based on the district-wide referendum to change the charter which clearly stated that we’re going to have a school in every town at the elementary level,” Sharood said. “And only the voters of that town are going to hold that decision whether to close that school under any circumstance.”

“We’ve been through two votes on that referendum with that charter, and both times it passed with clear majority support from all three towns. I think the voters have spoken,” Sharood said. “It’s the board I want to get some backbone and take a stance and speak to the public ... the bottom line is, I don’t believe there’s a majority in any of the three towns to close any one of these elementary schools.

“What I was really disturbed about in this last referendum was the lack of leadership among the school board members who did not go out and campaign, who did not take a public stance ... we need much more specific guidance from them on what they consider the path that this committee ought to be going down.”

The goal of the RSU is to prepare another proposal for a referendum in November. Dan Cecil of Harriman Architects and Engineers suggested the building committees hire a construction manager in the process.

“Given the failure of the vote in January and the increasing market and complexity of these three projects, I think it would be a good way to go,” Cecil said.

“All indications are ... that construction (cost) is just going crazy. Everything we’re looking at is showing that over the next couple of years the construction market is going to increase,” Cecil said. “Having a construction manager on board, you have a general contractor who is bidding things and pricing things with actual subcontractors ... it makes a contractor a part of the team in terms of the pricing of the building,” Cecil said. “I think in your case that’s an excellent thing.”

A construction manager will help accurately estimate a guaranteed maximum price, or a total price he or she thinks she project will cost. “They would create a cost estimate by talking to subcontractors and getting numbers from them,” Cecil said. “You’d be hiring a construction entity to drive your process in the same way that you would hire and engineer or an architect.”

Superintendent Andrew Dolloff reported from experience that, “It’s unclear how we qualify to hire a construction manager because, in the past, that’s been a very arduous process (in terms of getting state approval to use this method even though it’s not state-funded).”

“It is a process I’ve been familiar with in the past,” Dolloff said. “My only other concern at this point in the budget year is the budget. We’ve talked about hiring a survey firm in the next couple of months, we’re talking about bringing a construction manager on, and I always like to keep the budget under what was approved.”

The next Facilities Committee meeting will be at Kennebunk Elementary School at 7:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 28.

A Facilities Committee public forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25 in the gymnasium at Kennebunk Elementary School.

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