January 22

RSU 21 residents reject $75 million school renovation bond

The ambitious borrowing package fails by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in the towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Residents of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel voted by a wide margin Tuesday to reject the largest borrowing package ever put before voters in the three towns.

click image to enlarge

Joan Prentice of Kennebunk watches her ballot slide into the voting machine as Election Clerk Terry Beers assists in the town office auditorium. The renovations proposed for Kennebunk High School, with a price of more than $53.5 million, were the most extensive and costly of the three projects contained in the $75 million bond that voters soundly rejected.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Deputy Town Clerk Merton Brown sorts absentee ballots for counting later. Brown said the polls were busy throughout the day, and the town received 1,600 absentee ballots.

The $75 million bond to pay for renovations at three schools in Regional School Unit 21 is believed to be the largest school bond ever proposed in the state, according to the Maine Department of Education. It would have paid for renovations at Kennebunk High School, Kennebunkport Consolidated School and the Mildred L. Day School in Arundel.

Voters across the four-year-old district rejected the bond by more than a 2-to-1 ratio, with a total of 4,870 votes against and 2,110 votes in favor of the renovations.

The bond was rejected in Kennebunk, the largest town in the district, by 3,118 to to 1,303. It failed by 1,024 to 582 in Kennebunkport, and by 728 to 225 in Arundel.

Tim Hussey, chairman of the school board’s facilities committee, said he was amazed by the large voter turnout but disappointed by the results. He said it is too soon to say whether the board will present a scaled-down plan to voters.

“We need to digest this, reflect on it and think about where we go next,” he said. “The needs aren’t going away and, frankly, the costs are going to continue to rise.”

The borrowing proposal fueled passionate debate between those who support upgrading the district’s buildings and those who don’t believe that so much spending is really needed, or that taxpayers can afford it.

The decision on whether to borrow $75 million was a hard one, said residents who voted Tuesday afternoon. There is no state money available for the projects.

“I’m very conflicted about this vote because I’ve always voted for public education,” said Margarete Driver, a retired college professor from Kennebunkport who voted against the bond. “There are so many people in the three towns who are struggling to make ends meet. This would increase taxes they can’t afford to pay.”

Jeri Wallace of Kennebunk said she also was concerned about the high cost of the projects.

“I felt they’d gone to an extreme instead of going for something more moderate,” she said. “It is just so much money.”

Molly Pierce, a Kennebunk High School English teacher, wore a “vote yes” button while she voted at Town Hall.

She said the referendum was a hot topic in town and took on a “toxic” tone on social media, where neighbors accused each other of bullying and intentionally spreading incorrect information about the projects.

“I just want the facility to reflect the superb learning that goes on there every day,” she said. “It’s time.”

Voter turnout was strong throughout the day, town clerks said.

“School budget (votes) are snooze-fests, but we’ve never had anything like this before,” Kennebunkport Town Clerk April Dufoe said Tuesday afternoon as a steady stream of voters arrived at the town’s fire station.

By 3:30 p.m., more than 1,280 of Kennebunkport’s 2,550 registered voters had cast ballots, either in person or absentee. Dufoe said she issued 890 absentee ballots and all but about 50 had been returned. The town encouraged residents to vote absentee in case there was bad weather Tuesday.

Kennebunk Deputy Town Clerk Merton Brown said the polls were busy throughout the day, and the town received 1,600 absentee ballots. By the time the polls closed, 49 percent of the town’s 9,000 registered voters had cast ballots.

The renovations proposed at the high school, with a price of more than $53.5 million, were the most extensive and costly. Two wings of the school would have been demolished to make way for expansion of main buildings that date back to 1939 and a classroom and gym wing that was built in 1981.

The high school project included a $9.9 million standalone 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 would have been torn down and replaced with a structure on more stable soil. The proposed cost, including other renovations to the school, was $11.3 million.

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

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

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: @grahamgillian

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