March 15, 2010

Biddeford crafts plan to retain high school accreditation

NOEL K

— By . GALLAGHER

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Friday, September 12, 2008...Biddeford city officials are getting their first look at a proposed $38.9 million renovation project for Biddeford High School.

Staff Writer

Facing a loss of accreditation, Biddeford school officials are considering a $39.8 million high school renovation that would upgrade the 1961-era building and add a new two-story entranceway and band and chorus area.

''I think it's the best option for the long-term needs of the students,'' said School Committee member Dan Boucher, chairman of the ad hoc building committee.

The renovation plan would address the shortfalls cited by the accrediting body, such as the school's cramped library space, outdated labs and poor security, which exists because people in the administrative offices cannot see the main entrance of the building.

The proposal was presented to a joint meeting of the School Committee and the City Council last week. It must be approved by the School Committee before going to the City Council for public hearings and a vote.

The proposal is one of three options created by Harriman Associates, an Auburn-based consulting and architecture firm that has been working on the project for about a year.

A bare-bones, renovation-only plan was estimated to cost $22 million, while a proposal to build a new school at a new site would cost $52 million. The preferred option has a base cost of $36.6 million, with optional add-ons such as air conditioning that would raise the cost to $38.9 million.

An analysis of the three proposals is available at pressherald.com.

But even supporters acknow-ledge the price tag is a sticking point.

With no state funding available, the entire cost of the project would have to be financed through voter-approved bonds. The last big school project, the $24.8 million middle school project completed two years ago, had 80 percent state financing.

''I think it's going to be a lot of work on our part to sell it,'' Boucher said. ''Everyone is in favor of renovating, but when they hear the price tag, they aren't so sure.''

OTHER BONDS REJECTED

Biddeford officials have already met resistance from voters at the ballot box for some other infrastructure improvements.

Last November, voters rejected three bonds totaling $6.25 million for capital projects, including a $4 million sewer project that is part of an ongoing $40 million-plus effort to meet state and federal requirements to separate storm water and wastewater.

This November, Biddeford voters face two bond measures: a $4.9 million sewer bond and a $4 million road repair bond.

If the council approves a high school renovation plan, a bond measure would be placed on the ballot.

If the final price tag is $40 million, a bond measure would result in a tax increase of between $1.50 and $1.75 per $1,000 of a home's valuation, according to a ballpark calculation by City Manager John Bubier on Friday. That translates to an extra $344 to $402 in taxes annually for the median home price of $229,800 in Biddeford.

While each community is unique, a similar effort to upgrade South Portland High School was rejected in 2007. Voters there were asked to approve a $56 million bond to renovate and upgrade their high school, which was built in 1952.

In Biddeford, the building itself is structurally sound, but the high school is in danger of losing its accreditation from regional accrediting association, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. A 2006 NEASC report found deficiencies in both the school's curriculum and facilities.

''We are on warning status for accreditation,'' said Boucher. School officials must submit annual reports to NEASC indicating what they are doing to address the deficiencies, he said.

'I WAS JUST SHOCKED'

School Committee Member Cindy McSorley said a recent tour of the high school opened her eyes to the problems.

''It nearly brought me to tears several times,'' she said. ''I was just shocked.''

Problems ranged from cramped classrooms and not enough outlets in the rooms to having janitorial supplies lining hallways because of a lack of storage space. A theater in the building is not handicapped-accessible, she said. A significant problem is that the administrative offices are not near the entrance, sparking concerns about security.

''It was very sad,'' she said. ''I think if more citizens toured that school they would understand.''

Officials say the 960-student high school needs work to increase its energy efficiency, upgrade its electrical, lighting and computer systems and make it fully handicapped-accessible.

School Superintendent Sarah-Jane Poli praised the renovation plan as being able to serve the students for decades to come. State funding is out of reach for more than a decade, she said, and with that in mind, she thinks the community will support financing the project despite a tough economic climate.

''Things are not going to get any better for a while,'' she said. ''I think there is support out there.''

Despite the scale of the renovations, the committee is not interested in trying to implement the project in stages.

''I think the whole purpose of the committee was to do this and do it right. Let's not nickel-and-dime it and find out later that we should have done this, or should have done that,'' Boucher said.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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