2015-05-15 / Front Page

Sparse crowd for renovation hearing

Superintendent: Bond will be issued even if Kennebunkport votes for withdrawal study; residents ‘on the hook’ for full payments
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Dan Cecil, an architect with Auburn-based Harrison Associates, details problems at Arundel’s Mildred L. Day Elementary School during the May 5 public hearing at Kennebunk High School to answer questions about a $56.5 million district-wide building renovation bond. (Duke Harrington photo) Dan Cecil, an architect with Auburn-based Harrison Associates, details problems at Arundel’s Mildred L. Day Elementary School during the May 5 public hearing at Kennebunk High School to answer questions about a $56.5 million district-wide building renovation bond. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — If there is anyone in the RSU 21 towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel opposed to borrowing $56.5 million to renovate three district school buildings, they’re holding their peace.

Presentations on the bond proposal had been sparsely attended across the district, with almost all present speaking in favor of the proposal. At one official public hearing on the plan, held May 5 at Kennebunk High School, where about 74 percent of the bond money would be spent, was attended by just 55 people. And, of those, roughly 20 were already committed to a yes vote on the upcoming June 9 bond referendum, being school staffers, representatives of the companies that would rebuild the school, or members of the school board that created the borrowing plan.

Of the rest, interim Superintendent Dr. Kevin Crowley estimated that “at least 95 percent” of those at the May 5 meeting were “in favor” of the bond.

Indeed, of the dozen or so people who spoke, all testified on its behalf. And perhaps even more tellingly, everyone gathered in the Alexander Economos Auditorium — scheduled to be repurposed as a lecture hall if the bond passes — seemed to know how they were going to vote even before Crowley began his presentation on the need for the bond.

Early in the Q&A portion of the event, Lou Miller of Kennebunkport posed a question not to Crowley, but to the crowd.

“Is there anybody in this room who does not know already if they’re voting yes or no?” he asked.

Not a single hand went up. What followed was generally an act of preaching to the choir, as each subsequent speaker rose not to ask questions, but to entreat a decided room to vote how it clearly intended to vote anyway.

Still, that doesn’t mean there were no questions. It was just that no one questioned the need for the bond, especially given the poor condition of the three schools slated to benefit from funding — KHS, Kennebunkport Consolidated School and Arundel’s Mildred L. Day Elementary School.

Instead, most questions centered on what happens if the bond is approved, but voters in Kennebunkport, in a separate vote to be held June 9, agree to launch a process that could lead to eventual withdrawal from RSU 21. A question on the Kennebunkport ballot will ask voters in that town if they will agree to appropriate up to $40,000 to pay for the creation of a withdrawal study.

On that point, Crowley was clear: If the bond referendum passes districtwide, regardless of whatever Kennebunkport voters may do, they will have to pay the full value of their share of any debt under the current cost-sharing plan, if and when they pull out. That’s because unlike what happened last year in RSU 5, where a similar building bond was approved in the midst of a succession vote by Freeport residents, the RSU 21 school board will not delay borrowing while the withdrawal process plays itself out.

“If the (bond) referendum passes on June 9, the school board plans to issue a minimum of $40 million in bonds by Sept. 30, 2015,” Crowley said. “Then, one year later, we will issue bonds for the remainder of the project.

“The earliest Kennebunkport is going to be exiting this district is July of 2017,” Crowley said. “While they are here, they have their share of the issued debt. So, in a nutshell, I agree with Laurie Smith, their town manager, who told their selectmen when they went down this path that they would be on the hook for the money for this project. They’ve been part of the RSU; they are still part of the RSU until they are not.

“And, on a personal note,” Crowley said, “I don’t see this withdrawal thing going anywhere.”

One reason to not delay issuance of bonds, Crowley said, is the expectation that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.

Asked by Marc Faul of Kennebunk what will happen if the bond vote fails, Crowley said the work will still have to be done, it just won’t happen at the 2.5 percent interest rate he assured attendees the district will enjoy come September.

“I with I could sit here and tell you we have a Plan B, but Plan B is, we start piecing this thing together with Band-Aids and do one piece at a time, and it will cost 10 times more than this (bond) is going to cost,” Crowley said. “So, if you’re a taxpayer, this is work we’re going to do. OK? What we’re deciding right now is how we’re going to pay for it. Two-and-a-half percent for $40 million — that is about as inexpensive as we’re going to get. So, if anybody’s looking for the best deal out there, we’ve presented it to them tonight and we just hope that they embrace it.”

“Certainly, all of the life safety, fire code, building code issues, all that has to be take care of,” agreed Dan Cecil, an architect with Auburn based Harrison Associates, which drew up the renovation plans.

“If you don’t do it now, by the time you’ve chipped away at it over time, it’s going to be infinitely more and more expensive,” he said.

Another reason for haste, according to Joe Picoraro, vice-president at Portland based PC Construction, which has served as project manager for the proposed rebuild, is competition for construction workers.

“There are two major projects that would affect this project if it was delayed too much into the future,” Picoraro told attendees at the May 5 hearing. “One is a $100 million high school project in Sanford and the other is a $68 million high school project in Dover, New Hampshire.

“In effect, what these projects do is suck up the subcontractor community,” he said. “Usually, the first projects that get out of the gate will be of primary interest to a lot of the better subcontractors in the region. Between now and the middle of next year is the optimal time. The sooner that subcontractors are signed up, the better.”

“We are never going to see this cheaper, less expensive,” Crowley said, predicting renovations will save the district $4.8 million in annual building operating costs over the next 25 years.

Perhaps more compellingly, Crowley says KHS is in danger of losing its accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 2017, following warnings about its facilities in 1995 and 2006.

Buildings in jeopardy

There seems to be little question the three school buildings to be fixed are in poor condition. Even the five Kennebunkport selectmen who signed their town’s withdrawal petition agree to that. One, board Chairman Allen Daggett, has called Consolidated School “deplorable.” His problem, he says, is that after a previous $75 million building bond failed at the polls in January 2014, too much was cut from the Consolidated School’s portion of the project. Others, like Selectmen Sheila Matthews Bull and Ed Hutchins, say the Port’s share of the proposed bond (about 32 percent, according to a mil rate breakdown provided by the district), is out of proportion to its share of student enrollment (roughly 13 percent, by most estimates).

Meanwhile, some opposition to the bond has arisen due to the schools to be fixed. Ed Karytko of Kennebunk says part of the reason he is circulating a withdrawal petition in his town is because the district plans to close the Sea Road Elementary School in Kennebunk once repairs to Consolidated and Mildred Day are complete. However, while Sea Road is slated for closure due to declining enrollment — a 2010 study predicted RSU 21’s total enrollment, then at 2,784, would fall 16 percent by 2020 — it is newer and in better condition than the two elementary school buildings to be repaired.

However, the agreement that created RSU 21 in 2009 compels the district to maintain a school in each town, which dooms Sea Road, in light of the even newer Kennebunk Elementary School.

“If you leave a town with- out a school, you’re killing part of that town. That was at the forefront of what this RSU was built on,” Crowley said.

That said, some bond proponents say the real risk is to the students themselves.

“Look up,” KHS senior Tim Walsh commanded the crowd gathered in the auditorium for Crowley’s presentation.

“What’s missing?” he asked, only to answer the question himself. “It’s the sprinkler system.

“The biggest threat to this building is a match, in my opinion,” Walsh said. “We’re in a room designed for 250 people and there’s no fire safety in this room, except for in that corner, where there’s an exit sign. And that is what I urge people to think about when voting.”

Meanwhile, Bill Jewett of Arundel complained there is only one bathroom in KHS that is handicapped accessible. That’s hard on his son, Zach, he said, especially given the need to go outside in slush and snow and all kinds of inclement weather in order to get from one wing of the school to the other, where the usable bathroom is located.

That outside trek is something all KHS students do every day, Crowley said. Because the cafeteria only seats 255 in a school that serves 700, long lines mean some students skip lunch, Crowley said, while others cross from one wing to the next to eat in the school’s older gymnasium.

‘Needs, not wants’

Built in 1939 and last updated in 1981, KHS needs work to improve heating, insulation and mechanical systems, as well as improvements to handicapped accessibility, not to mention code compliance, Crowley said. The current locker rooms are considered to be “the worst in the league,” he added, noting that many competing teams refuse to use them, preferring instead to come to KHS fully dressed and waiting to shower at home.

If this building were not a public building, if it were a private building in the town of Kennebunk, it would have been closed by the town of Kennebunk,” said school board member Robert Domine, of Kennebunkport, who recently renovated offices at the Lafayette Center in Kennebunk.

“I saw the town come in and force the railing heights to be raised to 42 inches,” he said. “I saw them require stairwells to be completely isolated by firewalls, I saw them require sprinkler systems and doors that close automatically in the event of fire. If anyone came around here and required all that stuff, the building would be closed. And why the citizens are willing to put up with that, I have never understood.”

If approved, the bond would correct deficiencies in the building, close off the gap between wings, and replace the nine portable classrooms with real rooms sized to Department of Education standards, while adding a new auditorium, an expanded library, new science labs and a 400-seat cafeteria. The total price tag — about $42.8 million.

At the Mildred Day School, about $8.5 million would be spent to tear down the C and D wings, which have been sinking into the marine clay beneath them at a rate of about an half-inch per year. Those wings have settled almost 18 inches since they were built 35 years ago, resulting in cracks in the foundation and cinderblock walls, while in the gym, roof trusses have begun to pull apart, requiring emergency repairs this past winter, while the floor is far out of level.

RSU 21 spent close to $30,000 this past winter to keep snow shoveled off the Mildred Day roof to stave off a potential roof collapse, Crowley said.

Art LeBlanc of Kennebunk, a former school board member, said issues with the school are well known, meaning clear culpability in case of an accident.

“What happens when we hear the news that the roof collapsed? Everyone would be saying, ‘Why didn’t we do something?’” he said. “We have children going into a school with temporary reinforcements to the roof. These are life safety issues.”

Following construction of a new wing at Mildred Day, total square footage would be about the same as it is now, Crowley said. However, all systems would be upgraded, while the new wings would be on more solid footing.

Over at Consolidated, the plan is for $5.1 million in code improvements, while the total project has been cut almost in half from the 2014 proposal, largely by eliminating a planned expansion of floor space. That reduction, Crowley said, was needed to reduce the scope of the total bond package from the $75 million rejected last year to something that might be more palatable to voters this time out.

“These are needs, not wants,” he said.

Whether opponents of the bond will remain as silent at the polls as they have been during Crowley’s informational tour remains to be seen. However, he’s not taking any chances.

“It’s going to take a grassroots effort to get this passed,” he told his May 5 audience. “That wasn’t there the last time around. It needs to be there this time around.

“Looking around this room, I’m guessing there’s at least 95 percent yes votes here,” he said. “If each of us found five people to make sure they vote yes — because this isn’t about turning out the vote, its about turning out the yes vote — and each of those people found five friends, we win. We’d be able to build the schools that these kids deserve.”

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