KENNEBUNK — Multimillion-dollar school expansion projects usually get the attention of voters and taxpayers.

But residents of three coastal York County towns are just days away from voting on a nearly $75 million borrowing proposal to modernize three schools, and it seems it is all anyone is talking about.

Residents of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel will step into ballot booths Tuesday to vote on the largest spending package ever put before voters in these three towns. It’s among the largest in any Maine community in recent memory.

“It’s quite a topic around town,” said Al Searles, chairman of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen.

For months, the proposal has fueled passionate debate between those who support upgrading the district’s buildings and those who don’t believe that level of spending is really needed, or that taxpayers can afford it.

People on both sides of the issue have flooded newspapers with letters to the editor and engaged in extensive – and often contentious – debates on social media, where people have lodged accusations that their neighbors are bullying them or intentionally spreading incorrect information about the projects.

The bond is the latest hot-button issue in a four-year-old district – Regional School Unit 21 – that has already weathered a withdrawal attempt and changes to the district’s cost-sharing formula. Voter turnout is expected to far surpass that of other school-related ballot questions.

If approved, the $74.8 million bond would allow for renovations at Kennebunk High School, Kennebunkport Consolidated School and Mildred L. Day School in Arundel. School officials say the investments are necessary for student safety and to provide students with a 21st-century education.

The renovations at the high school, with a price of more than $53.5 million, are the most extensive and costly. Two wings of the school would be demolished to make way for expansion of main buildings that date back to 1939 and a classroom and gym wing built in 1981. The high school project also includes a stand-alone performing arts building.

At Mildred L. Day School in Arundel, a classroom wing and gymnasium that are sinking at a rate of a half-inch per year will be torn down and replaced with a structure on more stable soil. The cost, including other renovations to the school, is $11.3 million.

At Kennebunkport Consolidated School, the district would spend $9.9 million to build a new gym and kitchen, remove portable classrooms and bring the building up to current codes.

“These are things that have to be taken care of,” said Superintendent Andrew Dolloff. “Whatever happens on Jan. 21, we will have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Although school officials and many residents believe three of the district’s six schools need these significant repairs, there has been push-back in the communities from people who question the price. Some residents say the district should close the two elementary schools or scale down the project to eliminate perceived extravagances, such as a turf field and the standalone arts center at the high school.

During 2017, the year that repayment costs would peak, taxes would increase in Kennebunk by $139 per year for every $100,000 of assessed property value. Increases would be $136 per year in Arundel and $125 per year in Kennebunkport per $100,000 of assessed value.

That means the owner of a $200,000 home in Kennebunk would pay an additional $278 that year to cover the cost of the bond, while annual payments related to the project would decline after that.

“I think the difficult part for folks trying to make up their minds on this is it’s an expensive proposition. (Spending) $74.8 million requires serious consideration,” said Tim Hussey, chairman of the school board’s facilities committee. But, he said, “This is the first time that voters in our three communities have been asked to spend taxpayer money on buildings in a very long time.”

Searles, the Kennebunk selectman, worries the bond will create a “quadruple whammy” on taxpayers, who are likely to see increases in the school, municipal and county budgets this year.

“There are a large number of families that, while they have the income to afford the home they bought, have faced increases in the past five years that have gotten them to the point they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “It’s my feeling this will cause some families to give up living in Kennebunk because the cost of living has become too high. I think that’s a tragedy.”

POINTING OUT DEFICIENCIES

Walking through Kennebunk High School, Principal Susan Cressey can easily point out the school’s deficiencies.

The classrooms are smaller than recommended by the Department of Education, stairwells are narrow, temperatures are inconsistent and students who use wheelchairs or crutches don’t have easy access to many parts of the building. Some classes are held in portable classrooms. The cafeteria is so small students carry their lunches outside and across the driveway to eat in the gym.

“The thing we have working against us is it looks beautiful from the outside. It’s the quintessential New England high school,” Cressey said. “But we’re always trying to make do.”

The main high school building, notable for its Georgian architecture, was built in 1939. A classroom wing and gymnasium were added in 1981, the last time the school underwent a major renovation.

The renovation would upgrade mechanical and electrical systems, remove portable classrooms, fix the heating system and allow for the classroom space needed for students to work collaboratively rather than sit in neat rows as they did decades ago, Cressey said. Renovations would be done in time for the 2017 school year.

Dick Farnsworth, a retired teacher from Kennebunk, said the building is “absolutely substandard,” and was even when he taught there more than a decade ago.

“I know my taxes are going to go up, but this is the right thing to do,” he said. “I think it’s time we had the very best. We’ve had the very worst.”

Paula Hoffman, a mother of two from Kennebunk, said RSU 21 has finally come to a point where residents are putting behind them Arundel’s withdrawal attempt, battles over the budgets and uncertainty about the cost-sharing formula.

“We’re finally given the opportunity to vote to fix the high school,” she said. “It’s our job as a community to continue to pay for education. It’s our civic duty to move this forward.”

But there are others in the community who point to recent but less expensive school renovation projects in other communities: $41.5 million in South Portland, $26.85 million in Wells and $34 million in Biddeford.

Ed Geoghan, a former school board member from Kennebunk, said the high school plans are “extravagant” in several ways, including a $9.9 million performing arts center.

“It becomes an elitist thing when you feel that you have to sell the idea of a good public education on the basis of the facilities as opposed to the quality of education we can offer children,” he said.

THREE SCHOOLS, ‘SAME STORY’

Though the prices of the elementary school projects are smaller than the high school, the renovations will similarly transform the schools.

Both the Arundel and Kennebunkport elementary schools serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade and are the only schools in town.

The renovations will upgrade outdated systems, add fire sprinklers, eliminate portable classrooms and improve overall security and safety, according to school officials.

“The story is really the same in all three facilities,” Dolloff said. “These issues detract from a student’s ability to focus on what they need to focus on.”

Geoghan, of Kennebunk, said he is not alone in questioning whether it is really necessary for the district to have four elementary schools at a time when enrollment is not growing.

“It’s a waste of money to keep those two schools open,” Geoghan said. “It’s putting the money into buildings as opposed to improving the quality of education we can offer children.”

Residents of Kennebunkport and Arundel have made clear that they want to maintain their elementary schools, and the district has no plans to push for them to close, Dolloff said. “They are the hearts of those towns.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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Twitter: @grahamgillian