Amanda Marsden, a second-grade teacher at Pond Cove Elementary School, says a new building would help school staff keep up with 21st-century student needs. Contributed / Amanda Marsden

Supporters and opponents of the $115.9 million project for new Cape Elizabeth elementary and middle schools agree on one thing: Something needs to be done about the schools.

But what to do to address safety, security and space concerns and at what cost to taxpayers is at the crux of the debate over the referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Spaces designed for out-of-classroom learning are currently used for storage at Pond Cove Elementary and the Middle School in Cape Elizabeth. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

Project supporters argue that the current combined school building is beyond its useful life and replacing it is the most cost-effective way to address the issues and provide an adequate setting for 21st-century learning. Those opposed say the tax impact is too high and that there is a less expensive way to address those issues, including renovations or a new but smaller building than what is proposed.

The new schools, along with renovations at the high school, come with an estimated 22.6% tax increase in year one, predicted to hit taxpayers in 2026. The tax impact of the project would decrease year after year over the 30-year bond period.

“We recognize this is a big ask for our taxpayers,” said Superintendent Christopher Record. “We really see this as an investment in our schools and community for the next 50-plus years. It’s unfortunate as a community we’re in this situation. I think, historically, some choices were made to save costs in the short term, which is finally catching up to us.”

State of the schools


The oldest part of the Pond Cove Elementary and Middle School building was constructed in 1933. A separate building was added in 1948, splitting the two schools, before additions in 1955, 1956, 1962, 1994 and 2004 slowly reconnected them, forming a U-shape.

The cafeteria shared by the schools comes with multiple hazards, including the need to quickly navigate steps in order to evacuate. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

The building’s age and the way it was pieced together have resulted in a number of safety concerns, from visitors needing to walk by student-populated areas to get to front offices to narrow stairwells used as emergency exits for entire grade levels.

The shared cafeteria consists of multiple levels with two steps up to each, posing a safety risk if there is a need to evacuate, school staff said, especially for younger students. In addition, outside workers making daily deliveries to the kitchen must pass by fifth-grade classrooms to do so.

The sprawling nature of the building hinders response to medical emergencies and even routine medical issues with quick solutions take too much time away from a student’s class time, said Pond Cove nurse Erin Taylor.

Erin Taylor, the school nurse at Pond Cove, says the sprawling layout of the current building poses safety risks in emergency situations and difficulties in meeting students’ individual health needs. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

“If there’s an emergency up in fourth grade, it’s a haul to get there,” she said. “Also, say a student has diabetes and they need specialized care. What I end up doing is I go to them, versus them coming to me, because they lose about 10 minutes of class time, if not more, just in transition to and from their classroom to my office.”

The building has cracks in its foundation, damaged ceiling tiles and flickering lights, all seen during a tour of the building this month. Space is severely lacking;  rooms designated as offices and space for students to work outside of the classrooms are now used for storage,  and theater costumes are stored in a hallway. In some classrooms, teachers need to stand on tables to close windows.


The band room can’t adequately hold the middle school band students, who represent 60% of the middle school’s population.

Eighty middle school band students have little room to maneuver in the band room, teacher Caitlin Ramsey says. Contributed / Caitlin Ramsey

“At a quick glance, the middle school band room might look like an adequate space,” said Caitlin Ramsey, middle school band teacher, “but once you squeeze in 80 students, instruments and cases, there is no room to move from point A to point B.”

The building also does not meet the needs of 21st-century instruction, teachers say, with the lack of space hindering their ability to be more collaborative and keep up with changing technology.

“We all really make do with what we have, it’s what we’ve known,” said Amanda Marsden, a second-grade teacher. “It’s just to know what more we could be doing and how much better we can meet the needs of our students with a new state-of-the-art facility.”

Utilities at the schools are noisy, inefficient and not cost-effective, said David Bagdasarian, facilities director of Cape Elizabeth schools.

Some stairwells in the current building are too narrow to safely evacuate students, teachers say. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

“All of the heat is coming from the middle school, so the heat’s traveling a huge distance and heat’s being lost that way,” he said. “That’s due to the building being sprawling. It wasn’t designed to be what it is today. These were two separate schools that have been added onto over and over again.”


The debate 

The $115.9 million project would address these needs, the school department says. Roughly $41.1 million would go toward the Pond Cove school and $54.4 million toward the middle school. Over $15.5 million is allocated for common areas between the two schools, including  a cafeteria and gymnasium. Just over $4.9 million would go toward renovations at the high school. Voters also will be asked to give the school department permission to fundraise toward additional costs.

Pre-pandemic estimates put the project at roughly $80 million before leaping to between $108 and $142 million. The school board’s first official proposal weighed in at $126.5 million with an estimated 25.6% tax increase. In the face of opposition from both residents and town councilors, the board cut $10.6 million from the project in August.

Some opponents say the schools should be renovated rather than replaced, but supporters say the current building is beyond its useful life and renovating would not be cost-effective.

“They’re well-maintained and they’ve served their purpose well, but they’re not adequate for the educational needs of the 21st century,” said Kevin Justh, a member of the resident-driven group Advancing Cape Elizabeth Schools. “We’ve outgrown them. There are security issues, there are structural issues, there are operational cost issues.”

Opponents who say the $115.9 million project is too large and therefore more expensive than necessary are adamant that safety concerns and space issues should be solved with a smaller project.


“There are a number of people who are going to vote no, who don’t support the renovation, who would like to see a new, smaller building,” said Mary Ann Lynch, a former town councilor and school building committee member. “Whether it’s renovating or a new and smaller school, I think there are a number of options that would cost a lot less than $116 million.”

The 219,593-square-foot project exceeds state recommendations by nearly 60,000 square feet, Lynch said. The Maine Department of Education sets a standard of 140 square feet per elementary school student and 160 square feet per middle school student in school buildings. There are 991 students enrolled in Pond Cove and the middle school this school year, according to the school department. Using the 160-square-foot standard, Lynch said  a 160,000-square-foot school would be sufficient.

“At $500 per square foot, plus or minus, that’s $30 million in overbuild,” she said.

The size of the school should also be in line with student enrollment trends, Lynch said. K-12 enrollment in town has declined steadily from 1,683 students in 2011 to 1,485 in 2021. While enrollment jumped to 1,509 this year, projections from the New England School Development Council and Wandell Consulting indicate that enrollment rates will continue to decline over the next decade.

Kejda Gjermani, a mother of four who moved to Cape Elizabeth in 2021 largely for the schools, she said, worries not only about the tax burden but about the project’s impact on future school spending. An expensive new building could strain the school department’s budget down the line when it needs to stay competitive in paying teachers as well as with current and future programming.

“Parents have very specific wish lists about academics,” she said. “They want more AP classes, or they want more tracking for math, they want to beef up the curriculum. All of these other things will take money.”


Katharine Ray, a former school board member and town councilor, agreed.

“I’ve always seen the schools as sort of a triangle,” she said. “You’ve got the students, you’ve got the staff, and you’ve got the parents, and the parents have high expectations. So do the teachers and the students.”

Ray disagrees with the school board’s method in approaching the rebuild, she said.

“What really bothered me was that there was no budget set for this project,” she said. “It was sort of a wish list: ‘We want this, we want this, we want this.’ But if I do a project in my house, my husband and I have to think about, ‘What do we have for money? What can we do?'”

They believe the tax burden could impede the town’s efforts to create a more affordable and diverse housing stock. They also believe the burden could be so great that some residents would be forced to move elsewhere.

“I can’t imagine having paid off my mortgage and retiring and just having a fixed income, and I have to worry about paying my taxes,” Gjermani said. “If I can’t make my tax payment, then what do I do? I have to move out.”

“We’re making housing more expensive,” Lynch added. “It’s not just the seniors, it’s the young families as well.”

Voting will take place at Cape Elizabeth High School from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

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