If all goes as planned, Westbrook residents could vote on a new junior high project this spring, and the school could be completed by sometime in 2010.

By the end of this month, the state is expected to tell the city what it will pay for – a renovation of the existing Wescott Junior High School, building a new junior high on the same site, or building a new school at a new location.

City Councilor John O’Hara, a co-chairman of the Wescott building committee, said he believed the state was leaning toward building a new junior high on a new site – a decision that would dovetail with the city’s decision last spring to purchase property off Stroudwater Street. He said the additional $8 million cost of preparing the land at the existing site for construction was playing a key role in the state’s decision.

“This is extremely good news for us,” said O’Hara.

The decision on whether to renovate or build a new junior high would be one of the first of many steps in a lengthy planning and approval process for a project designed to cure problems that have been ailing the junior high for more than 30 years. The Wescott Junior High School Building Committee has laid out that process at a series of meetings during the past two weeks.

Wescott Junior High placed ninth on a list of 20 schools the state is expecting to either renovate or replace. The school, built in mid 1970s, is considered deficient because of an outdated design based on open space versus individual classrooms. The school has since been partitioned into classrooms, leading to poor air circulation and excessive noise in classrooms, among other problems. The project is expected to cost upwards of $30 million, with the state paying for 100 percent of the project it approves and Westbrook covering any extras.

According to School Superintendent Stan Sawyer, the state’s funding will include about 30 acres of land, three athletic fields, all construction materials and all construction costs, including fees for the architects, engineers and contractors, including analyses already done. It will also pay for equipment in the building, technology and furniture. It will not, however, pay for an auditorium.

Originally, the city and state were expecting to renovate or build a new school on the current Wescott Junior High site, off Bridge Street, but after analyzing the site both parties began to look elsewhere.

“There are some real obstacles with the current site,” said Scott Brown, school construction specialist for the Maine Department of Education.

It would require extensive excavating of land and moving two sets of power lines. The city would also have to replace the woods it would cut down at the site. The work would cost $8 million.

“That’s a tremendous chunk of money that could be spent elsewhere,” said O’Hara.

The site also poses transportation problems and would require a second driveway. The city recently asked 40 abutting homeowners if they would be willing to sell part or all of their property to build a second entrance, but the city couldn’t find an abutter in an appropriate place to agree to sell.

As an alternative to the current site, the city spent just under $1 million on a 65-acre property on Stroudwater Street in April. In analyses of potential new sites around the city, the Stroudwater Street property is by far the most attractive, according to city and school officials.

“It’s truly a gorgeous piece of property,” said Wescott Junior High Principal Brian Mazjanis at the Nov. 9 meeting. “I had a chance to go and look at it. I could really see a school there.”

Following a final decision on whether to renovate, build new at the current location or build new elsewhere, the architect hired by the city will develop a conceptual idea for the new school. The state will have to approve the concept, as well as the residents of Westbrook through local referendum. Subsequent steps will require state approval for designs and funding before construction can begin.

According to Sawyer, after the local referendum, the design phase should take about nine months. A construction review process will take another two months, followed by two years of construction. Assuming a March or April 2007 referendum date, Sawyer said the school could be built by around September 2010.

The final decision on the scope of the project is up to the state, which will cover 100 percent of the project it approves. The state is expected to approve a project that will provide Westbrook with an adequate replacement for Wescott Junior High, with capacity for 600 students – 50 more than the current school population.

But according to O’Hara, the city may seek to build a school for 650 students instead of the 600 to account for more growth than predicted by the state.

The city may also seek to build a 1,000-seat auditorium that could serve many functions for the city, including an arena for graduating its high school seniors instead of Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

The costs of construction would be covered by a 20-year bond that the city would have to acquire on its own, though the state would provide reimbursement, according to Sawyer. The city is also currently looking into possible uses of Wescott Junior High should a new school be built elsewhere. Sawyer said potential uses could include a recreation center, senior citizen center, community meeting place and space for a food pantry.

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