At least one newcomer will be elected to the School Board in Cape Elizabeth as expensive rebuilds and upgrades are being considered for the town’s schools.

Running for three seats in November are incumbents Heather Altenburg and Elizabeth Scifres and challengers Kathleen Curry-Sparks,  Kejda Gjermani, Audra Gore, David Hughes and Samantha Lowe. Board member Laura DeNino is not seeking reelection.

Most of the candidates support a proposed plan to replace the Pond Cove Elementary and middle school buildings and renovate the high school, but Hughes has reservations about the project and Gjermani outright opposes it. The plan is based on recommendations from the Cape Elizabeth School Building Committee, which were approved by the School Board in January and are expected to be a part of a referendum in 2022.

Concerns at the schools range from structural and safety issues to energy efficiency.

Both incumbents are in full support of the project, even in light of a potentially hefty price tag.  A current cost estimate has not been made, but in February of 2020 the price was placed between $71 million and $80 million.

“I think the recommendations are completely warranted and appropriate,” Scifres said. “We do not just have safety issues and co-compliance issues. We’re not even close to environmentally friendly.”

Scifres said a lot of money is now being spent trying to keep the schools running, noting that heat loss is a major issue.

Altenburg, a member of the building committee, said “we lose efficiency with the boiler” due to the “snake-shaped” foundation as opposed to standard square or rectangular buildings.

Both incumbents said the recommended upgrades and renovations to the high school would give it a lifespan of at least another decade.

Lowe said she was “all in favor of upgrades.”

“All the towns around us have either brand-new schools or huge great renovations, and I feel like Cape looks like the ugly stepsister,” she said.

The technological upgrades that are needed are hard to do with the existing structures, she added.

Curry-Sparks also supports the project.

“I have gone back and watched presentations that were given by the architectural firm,” Curry-Sparks said. “The Pond Cove and the middle school are both at a point where putting more money into patching up what we have is really a poor investment.”

The high school “has 15-20 years of life still in it,” she said, and a rebuild could be considered down the road if upgrades are given now.

Gore is in agreement but wants to take time in finding the most cost-effective path, such as repairing some aspects while rebuilding others.

“Our school is bigger than the building,” Gore said. “It doesn’t have to be a fancy building. It’s smart to think about longevity and about having a maintenance project in place.”

Hughes questions the recommendations, stating that he has experience managing the wastewater treatment facilities in Scarborough, which involves managing assets much like a school board must do.

“It has to be a project that is justifiable, cost-effective and really in the best interest of the entire community,” Hughes said.

The cost of the project could become “a huge tax burden,” he said, and “actual need versus actual wants” may need to be reconsidered.

“I am vehemently not in favor,”  Gjermani said. In addition to a potentially big price tag, she said she is concerned about the effect that the length of construction and the noise pollution could have on children’s learning, noting the difficulty in finding a temporary replacement school.

Instead of completely rebuilding the schools, Gjermani suggested that “you could put solar panels on top” in an effort to “mitigate a lot of the inherent energy inefficiency.” 

Cape Elizabeth students are fully back to in-person learning after the pandemic forced the board to implement a hybrid strategy last year.

Scifres and Altenburg said they are proud of the school board’s COVID-19 response, though recognize that it was not perfect.

“Nobody knew how to navigate this,” Altenburg said, and “every system had to be recreated.”

Hughes is pleased with where things are heading this school year, but said the board was stagnant in addressing the “ever-evolving situation” last year. Social isolation was “mental and emotional turmoil” for students, he said.

All challengers are in support of the schools following CDC and state guidelines, although Gore and Gjermani would like to tweak the schools’ mask policy.

Gore wants to explore creative options to allow time for masks to be off.

“If the mandate is no masks when you’re outside, then let’s do more outside,” she cites as an example.

Gjermani said that, while she believes the board could have done better in their approach to the pandemic last school year, she is in support of tools, such as pool testing, that have been implemented.

However, when it comes to masks, Gjermani thinks high schoolers should have a choice.

“In high schools, I think masks should be optional,” she said. “If they were in any other setting, in any congregation, they would not have to wear a mask.”

She noted that the reason students were masked in the first place was because they were not eligible for the vaccine. That has since changed and there is now a high vaccination rate amongst high schoolers.

All three open seats are at-large, three-year terms.

Residents will vote at the Cape Elizabeth High School gymnasium between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.

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