SOUTH PORTLAND — A $44.2 million borrowing plan for renovation and construction at South Portland High School came a step closer to the November ballot Monday as it won preliminary approval from the City Council.

The measure passed by a vote of 4-2. Councilors Rosemarie De Angelis and James Hughes were opposed. Councilor Maxine Beecher was absent.

Much of the debate regarding the high school project has focused on whether voters would agree to borrow the $44.2 million amount recommended by the city’s Board of Education or whether the figure needs to be closer to $39 million to make it palatable to voters. Councilors have the option of reducing the amount Sept. 8, when the measure comes before them for possible final approval.

It appears that the school board’s plan has the support of the majority of the seven-member council. Beecher expressed support for that amount previously. Councilor Patti Smith said Monday that while she had previously floated the $39 million figure, she has since decided on the $44.2 million proposal.

“I agree it’s not perfect, but I’m behind it because I know it’s the right thing to do to get us where we need to be,” Smith said.

Mayor Tom Coward said that while he was voting for the proposal Monday, he is still concerned about how it will fare at the polls and is still soliciting input from residents.

The size of the borrowing proposal is of particular concern because in 2007, voters defeated a $56 million high school borrowing plan by a 3-1 margin. That proposal has been scaled back to a cost of $47.3 million, of which $44.2 million would be borrowed.

The city hired two consultants to review the plan, put forward by Harriman Associates, in order to help the City Council with its deliberations. The consultants — Robert Howe of HKTA/Architects and Tom Frederick of Wright-Ryan Construction Inc. — reported earlier this month that the concept and budget were reasonable. They said major changes would be needed in order to see deep savings.

The consultants did not, however, weigh in on many of the areas, such as the number of classrooms or size of locker rooms. They said those spaces are dictated by programming, which is a policy matter decided by school officials.

Hughes and De Angelis both objected to the physical size of the project. The building footprint – not including the auditorium – is 270,000 square feet, and the project is designed for a maximum enrollment of 1,100 students, roughly 200 more than the present enrollment.

“Let’s act like the frugal Yankees we are supposed to be,” Hughes said. “Send the proposal back to the school board, have them review the plan and cut the size of the building.”

De Angelis noted that many vocal supporters of the $44.2 million plan were parents but that about three-quarters of the city’s households do not have children.

“I’m not convinced this is going to bring them on board,” she said.

Under the $44.2 million plan, the tax burden for a house valued at $200,000 is estimated to be $233.63 in 2015, the peak year. Over the 20-year life of the bond, the total amount would be $3,723. For a $39 million bond, the peak amount would be $204.65 and the amount over 20 years would be $3,278.

On Monday, nearly two dozen people offered comment on the plan. All but a couple urged councilors to support the school board’s plan.

“I think it’s time to get behind it and support it,” said one resident, Melissa Linscott. “We’re reaching crisis point. It needs to happen and it needs to happen now.”

Another resident, Jeff Selser, said it was naive for councilors to expect they could find several million dollars in savings in a few weeks.

“This has been picked over and picked over and reviewed by two high-quality firms,” he said.

Two City Council candidates – Albert DiMillo and Don Russell – spoke against the plan. DiMillo insists that the job can be done for $25 million, and Russell believes it would be prudent to wait until the economy is better.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]