South Portland residents will likely be voting next fall on the most expensive school construction project in the city’s history – rebuilding the high school at a cost of $85 million.

The South Portland City Council is expected to send the question to voters. At the same time, most councilors took a pass this week on stating their opinion publicly on the project.

That’s a shame. Whether they support or oppose the project, councilors should let their constituents know where they stand on such an important question.

“I’m undecided myself,” Councilor Jim Hughes said. “It’s an expensive school, no question about that. I want to put the plan forward to the public.”

Councilors Jim Soule and Linda Boudreau also declined to take a stance on the project. “I do expect I’ll be moving forward to put the issue on the ballot, but I don’t want anyone to assume that I will support it myself,” said Boudreau.

While private citizens have a right to keep their political opinions to themselves, they deserve a little more from their elected leaders, who have chosen to run for offices and cast votes in public. Some of their names will appear on the ballot next to the school referendum next fall.

These councilors have had opportunities many residents have not had and could arguably offer the most informed opinions on the project. They have reviewed the plans in recent workshop sessions with school board members, toured the high school and questioned architects working on the project. Councilors are also more familiar with the city’s finances than most residents.

Putting our $85 million where our mouth is, we believe the schools have yet to make a convincing case that the city needs to spend such a large amount of money fixing the high school, particularly without receiving a dime from the state.

The school, built in the 1950s, unquestionably has some problems. The mechanical and fire safety systems are at risk of failing building codes. Some floors and walls have water damage and some ceilings have asbestos.

However, many of these problems could presumably be fixed without completely renovating and rebuilding the school – a project that would include a new entrance on Mountain View Drive, a new library, science wing, cafeteria and kitchen, weight rooms, and an artificial turf field.

It sounds like a great place for South Portland students to learn, but the price tag is just too big and comes too close on the heels of rebuilding the city’s five elementary schools.

We’ll lay out our case in more detail in an editorial next fall before the vote, and we urge councilors to take a public stance as well, whether they agree with us or not.

Brendan Moran, editor

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