A resounding vote Tuesday against a $75 million school renovation plan in Regional School Unit 21 leaves school officials in the unenviable – but not unheard of – position of trying to come up with a new plan to sell to voters.
The three-school renovation bond, believed to be the largest ever proposed in the state, was turned down by 69 percent of voters in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel. Despite that vote, school officials say they will go back to voters with a revised plan because the problems at Kennebunk High School, Kennebunkport Consolidated School and Mildred L. Day School in Arundel are only going to get worse.
In recent years, officials in South Portland, Scarborough and Freeport have presented – and received approval for – scaled-back school building projects that were initially rejected by voters.
Voters in RSU 21 could be asked to consider a new renovation plan as early as June.
“We will seek input from the community about what level of expenditures will be acceptable,” said Superintendent Andrew Dolloff. “The issues aren’t going to go away.”
The RSU 21 vote – which fueled passionate debate across the district – was not as close as some in the area predicted. More than two-thirds of voters in the three towns voted against the plan, sending a clear message about a proposal opponents said was too expensive for taxpayers to shoulder alone. There is no state funding available for the projects.
“It was much too expensive. I think that’s probably where most of the opposition came from,” said Ed Geoghan, a former school board member from Kennebunk who opposed the plan. “I think they recognized there is need for repairs, but not to the extent that was proposed.”
Dolloff said he is confident the Kennebunk-based school district can also come up with a revised plan that voters will support. He said the school board and its facilities committee will begin meeting next week to figure out how to proceed, but he expects a revised plan to go to voters in June or November.
“I think if the vote were closer, some who were involved might think you could make a few simple tweaks in the plan. With the margin as significant as it was, the plans are going to have to be revised significantly. This wasn’t a close vote where a minor change might swing enough votes to get approval,” he said. “We’re not looking to win by a slim margin. We want to have a plan that is heartily endorsed by the community. That will take significant work.”
School districts in several southern Maine towns can sympathize.
Last June, voters in RSU 5, which includes Freeport, Durham and Pownal, rejected a $17 million plan to renovate Freeport High School, largely because it included upgrades to athletic fields. In November they approved a $14.6 million plan for the high school, but rejected a separate proposal for the athletic fields.
Nelson Larkins, chairman of the RSU 5 school board, said the board decided to separate the school and athletic field proposals. The school plan was also reconfigured to save $600,000.
“There was a pretty strong indication that, while a lot of the community supported the athletic component, a lot more people supported the high school renovation,” Larkins said.
South Portland officials took a slightly different course after voters in 2007 rejected a $56 million high school renovation plan by a 3-1 margin. Three years later, voters approved a $41.5 million bond after school officials cut out a second gymnasium, artificial turf field and 29,000 square feet of space.
In neighboring Scarborough, voters in 2006 rejected a $38.3 million plan to replace Wentworth Intermediate School when it was coupled with a $16 million plan for a middle school renovation. In 2011, residents voted in favor of spending $39 million to replace Wentworth.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: