The South Portland City Council gave the School Board a lecture and some homework Monday night.

The City Council told school leaders to determine a price voters would support for updating the high school before proposing another bond issue. Voters defeated a $56 million plan in 2007.

“If you go with $40 million, $50 million or $60 million, it will not pass,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “Determine what the city can handle first.”

Mayor Jim Soule strongly encouraged school leaders to conduct a comprehensive survey on the amount of money voters are willing to spend before spending months on developing a new plan to put on the ballot in 2009.

“A survey goes a long way to getting the community to buy in to what you are doing,” Soule said. “South Portland always has supported education. You just need to come up with the right number.”

The School Board and members of the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee met with the City Council Monday night at the community center to gauge council support for floating a bond issue to renovate the high school, a year after a previous plan was soundly rejected in a citywide vote.

Although most councilors said they would vote to place the bond on a citywide ballot, they warned school officials that they need to significantly reduce the cost and scope of the original project.

School Board member Ralph Baxter told councilors at the workshop that the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee has yet to set a new price for renovating the school that voters might accept.

He said the original $56 million plan is much too complicated to break into separate, itemized pieces.

But, Baxter said, the committee may recommend dropping two controversial components of the original plan – an artificial turf playing field and two gymnasiums – that voters complained were extravagant.

Instead, Baxter said, a new school rebuilding plan would eliminate the existing Beal Gym, which is aging, and replace it with a new gym that is better insulated and meets requirements for handicap accessibility.

A drafty annex would be torn down, with the new gym erected right next to the school, allowing for better energy efficiency.

But the ideas Baxter suggested did not get the support school leaders were counting on from the City Council.

Councilor Linda Boudreau discouraged them from developing a school renovation plan that calls for tearing down Beal Gym.

“I don’t think the public wants that,” Boudreau said. “People think we’re doing fine with the gym we have, and it has served us well.”

She noted that a lot of South Portland residents have fond memories of playing sports or attending events in the gym, and do not consider the facility obsolete.

“It’s a keepsake,” Councilor Maxine Beecher added.

Boudreau said the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee seems determined to rebuild the entire school, when voters indicated they want only to make repairs and update the existing school.

“I’m in a quandary,” added Blake, noting he is a new member of the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee, which is charged with developing the high school renovation plan.

“I’m asked to support a (second) plan, but I don’t know the amount,” Blake said.

Councilor Claude Morgan was more cautious. He warned school leaders not to ask voters to borrow money in 2009, saying the poor economy would lead to a defeat.

Morgan advised school officials to begin the application process for state school construction aid, even though it is unclear whether money will be available in 2009. He said voters expect the school department to exhaust all resources before asking them to borrow money.

Morgan said a second defeat of a high school bond would hinder its chances for passage well into the future.

“It is the wrong time to go to ballot,” he said. “If the proposal strikes out a second time, it will have the patina of a loser. It will become something of a dog.”

Baxter said the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee was only looking at priorities right now, not costs. He said the needs at South Portland High School remain the same. He identified health-safety, mechanical, handicap accessibility and educational needs.

Although a majority of councilors said they would vote to let a bond issue be decided in a referendum, the overall reaction clearly was a disappointment to school leaders.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin said eliminating portions of the $56 million renovation will have a domino effect on the rest of the plan.

She said the only way to figure out the final price is to completely revise the school building project, which will take several months.

No vote was taken at the informal workshop.

Likewise, the School Board did not decide whether to move forward with a new school bond after Monday night’s meeting with the City Council.

The information will be reviewed by the full Secondary Schools Facilities Committee before a recommendation is made and acted on by the School Board.

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