The last time the state offered funding for new school construction and major renovations, in 2016, 75 schools, all well past their prime for safely and comfortably housing students, filed applications. After 14 months, just three of the projects were approved.

For Saco, whose project finished fourth – and out of the money – that meant no relief was on its way, and the elementary classes now being taught in portable and makeshift classrooms would remain there.

Now the school district must decide whether to wait and see if they’ll have more luck in the next round — whenever that comes — or to ask residents to foot the entire bill, as Portland did in 2017.

That’s a decision dozens of districts around the state could face in the next decade, and one that not only affects students, parents and teachers, but all taxpayers — and the very way of life in many communities.

According to Pine Tree Watch, the average Maine school was built between 1950 and 1960, so many have already reached the end of their 40- to 50-year life. Constructed before modern building codes, many are also not accessible to all students.

Without funding to renovate or replace these schools, districts have been forced, for years now, to turn trailers, hallways and closets into classrooms. They’ve dealt with cold rooms and backed-up sewage, the result of a lack of modern electric, plumbing and heating systems.

And they’ve waited for their turn with the state’s Major Capital School Construction program, which ranks projects proposed by school districts based on need, then funds a certain number of projects based on available state money.

For a long time now, the amount of available money has not come close to filling the need.

Pine Tree Watch reports that in the last two decades, districts have sought help with nearly 260 of the state’s 600 or so school buildings. Only 75 new schools have been approved, including just 19 since 2010.

The number of projects accepted by the state depends on the construction debt limit, which has been capped at $126 million since 2014. New projects can only be funded as older ones are finished and the debt incurred from them retired.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin wants to blend the construction fund with another, smaller source of money to fund more projects, and Rep. Mike Brennan, D-Portland, has a bill in that would raise the debt limit to $150 million. Perhaps, as Makin says, more schools can get by with smaller renovation projects.

But there’s no easy solution. The backlog for projects is more than $500 million, and raising the debt limit raises costs for all school districts. But students shouldn’t be left  in substandard schools, either.

Absent state aid some communities will choose to fully fund the projects through property taxes, as Portland voters did in 2017 when they approved four school projects that had unsuccessfully sought state funding for years.

The end of life for all these schools, then, will raise important questions in each community, many of which have changed dramatically since the schools were built. Do you protect neighborhood elementary schools, even with higher costs and lower enrollments, or do you consolidate, even across town lines?

What does the elementary school mean to the community, and what will it mean in 40 years? Is there something to replace it if students are moved, or is the school an indispensable part of the glue that holds the community together? Is saving it worth the cost?

Communities have been able to put off these questions for a while. But with every year, the old school buildings deteriorate further. Now’s the time for answers.


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