SCARBOROUGH — Mold, crowding and other problems that plague Wentworth Intermediate School won’t go away if town voters reject a $39 million proposal on next Tuesday’s ballot to replace the nearly 50-year-old building.

Since 2006, the school district has spent $1.3 million fixing up Wentworth, including a recent roof replacement that’s only under warranty for five years because the substructure is in poor condition, school officials say.

If voters decide not to replace Wentworth, as they did in 2006, school officials anticipate spending as much as $2.5 million over the next three years to address new and ongoing problems with the building, including asbestos-contaminated window casings.

Paul Koziell, chairman of the 40-member building committee that developed the Wentworth proposal, compares the decision to build a new school with his point of reckoning with an old Ford Explorer he used to own. When it started needing thousands of dollars in repairs each month to stay on the road, he knew it was time to get rid of it.

“This school has 500,000 miles on it,” Koziell said. “It’s not a historic structure and it wasn’t well built to start with. It’s time to buy new.”

Wentworth was built as a junior high school in 1963. A wing was added in 1974 and portable classrooms were added in 1988. Today, the school has 16 portable classrooms.

The school serves 775 students in grades 3 through 5. It also hosts community recreation programs and its kitchen produces meals for the town’s three other elementary schools, as well as Wentworth students.

A new school would be built beside the existing building, which would be torn down afterward. Construction would begin in 2012 and the new school would open in 2014.

At 163,000 square feet, the new school would be about 60,000 square feet larger than the existing building. However, it would be 21,800 square feet smaller than the $38.3 million proposal that was rejected by voters in 2006.

The new school would feature a $1.4 million geothermal heating and cooling system that would save a projected $73,500 each year on energy costs. Moreover, supporters say the existing building is so poorly built, without sufficient insulation or airtight construction, that it costs twice as much to heat Wentworth than the newer, similar-sized Scarborough Middle School.

Supporters cite a wide variety of problems with the existing building, including groundwater and radon seeping into the basement crawl space, former bathrooms being used as storage and instructional space, fire sprinklers missing from most of the school and rodent infestations in the portable classrooms.

“Continued investment in this building will never truly improve it, which is wasteful spending,” said Superintendent George Entwistle III. “The building committee has done its homework and put together a credible, responsible construction plan that makes this the best investment for the taxpayers of Scarborough.”

The project would add about $177 to the annual tax bill on a $300,000 home, supporters say.

While the School Board and the local chamber of commerce have endorsed the proposal, some residents have questioned the cost, size and need for the project, particularly when renovations would cost about $6 million less.

Koziell said the building committee decided against renovating the school because, in part, it would have to be done in phases, which would displace students and take about four years. Renovations also would likely uncover additional problems, he said, which would drive up costs.

As proposed, the new school would cost about $240 per square foot, Koziell said. That’s less than the projected cost of other new schools in Greater Portland, which ranged from $351 to $184 per square foot, according to referendum supporters.

“We’re easily in the middle,” Koziell said. “We’re not the cheapest and we’re not the most expensive.”

Supporters of the Wentworth proposal say it could wind up costing less if it inspires competitive bidding in a hungry construction market and gets a low interest rate when the district borrows money for the project.

A 30-year bond with an interest rate of 4.5 percent would cost taxpayers $27 million in debt service, but the potential for interest rates as low as 3 percent could reduce debt service by $9 million, according to Town Manager Tom Hall.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:
[email protected]