First-graders Landon Riggott and Ada Alfiero-Strangfeld work on computers during independent learning time in one of the portable classrooms at Eight Corners Primary School in Scarborough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SCARBOROUGH — A long-overdue school construction project is raising alarm as the estimated cost creeps toward $150 million and town officials struggle to find a site that voters would support.

The current $135 million price tag to build a K-3 primary school that would replace three crowded and outdated K-2 schools doesn’t include the cost of land, site development or renovations to Scarborough Middle School. It also doesn’t account for inflation, rising interest rates or escalating building costs, which consultants say could add about $15 million if the project were delayed just one year.

Faced with persistent questions about the cost, size and need for the project after nearly a decade of planning, town officials are scrambling to polish and promote their proposal before a planned referendum in November and quell residents’ concerns about what’s been happening behind closed doors.

In the rear-view mirror are two similar school building projects that voters in neighboring Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland and North Yarmouth soundly rejected last November. Both were surprising in high-performing school districts that typically support education spending. In Scarborough, a top district that has struggled to pass school budgets in the past, town officials and residents hope to avoid the same fate.

“My biggest concern is whether we can get the public behind the project,” said Jon Anderson, Town Council chairman and school building committee member. “We need this to pass. The worst thing would be if this failed to pass and the costs continue to go up. Time is of the essence. We’re on the verge of a crisis. Voting no won’t make the problem go away.”

An outdoor walkway connects one of the portable classrooms to the main building at Eight Corners Primary School in Scarborough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The building committee was supposed to recommend a site for the new school by the end of 2022, but Town Manager Tom Hall only recently began negotiating with a few landowners, whittled down from more than 70 properties.


Site discussions have been held in executive sessions because they involve real estate negotiations, but committee members say they will share details of their review process eventually. “Everything that’s been done will be completely transparent,” said Dana Fortier, a community member who chairs the building committee.

They gave priority to centrally located parcels with at least 20 acres and access to transportation and public utilities. In a town with few large parcels and an active rumor mill, many say The Downs redevelopment site is on the list.


Susan Hamill, a leader of Scarborough Maine Advocates for Reasonable Taxes, or SMARTaxes, is eager for more information about the current proposal and questions whether it can pass in November.

“The need is there and I want to get behind it, but at this point I can’t,” she said. “They want this project to solve all the problems in the district. But these projects are getting so huge, it’s almost impossible for a small town to do them.”

Sue Hamill, leader of Scarborough Maine Advocates for Reasonable Taxes, outside Blue Point Primary School in Scarborough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Some town officials share Hamill’s concerns, including her husband, Don, who sits on the Town Council with Nick McGee. Both question whether the town will be able to develop a solid proposal and win voter support by November, especially since Scarborough is a wealthy community that doesn’t qualify for state-funded school construction.


“It’s a heavy lift. Everyone would have to work very quickly, and the last thing you want to do is rush something like this when it’s not ready,” McGee said. “I want to make sure we’re working with good data and I want to reserve my decision until I have all the facts.”

They see lessons in the failure of Cape Elizabeth’s $116 bond issue that would have transformed the town’s K-12 campus, and in MSAD 51’s rejection of a $73.9 million bond issue for a new primary school that would have addressed crowding.

One of the portable classrooms at Eight Corners Primary School in Scarborough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Hamill said he wants to “pressure test” the building committee’s assumptions, including the idea that it would be more costly and take too long to renovate and expand the Pleasant Hill, Eight Corners and Blue Point primary schools. He sees Scarborough’s recent rejection of a $16 million public library expansion as further proof that a much larger $150 million school project would be a tough sell in the current economy.

“I think we saw some examples of sticker shock at the polls last November and we need to do some belt-tightening,” Hamill said. “The price of a school isn’t an indication of the quality of education that’s happening there.”


In the planning stages since 2014, the current proposal would eliminate 30 portable classrooms across the district, including 12 at Scarborough Middle School that house the town’s 220 sixth-graders. Eight Corners has 10 portable classrooms, while Pleasant Hill and Blue Point each have four.


Under the current plan – which supporters have started calling the “unified school solution in Scarborough” – third-graders would move from Wentworth Intermediate School to a new 1,000-student primary school; sixth-graders would move to Wentworth; the middle school would house only seventh- and eighth-graders; and Scarborough High School would continue with grades 9-12.

Built in the mid-1900s, the primary schools have been expanded over the years but are now crowded and have significant security, safety and efficiency issues and operating costs that are 50% higher than the relatively new Wentworth, school officials said.

The school board decided in January 2020 to focus on building a K-3 primary school, but the COVID-19 pandemic put planning on hold for a year and led to a baby boom that’s forcing school officials to recalculate enrollment projections. Currently at 2,880 students, projections calculated four years ago anticipate as many as 3,300 students by 2029. Fresh numbers will be delivered in early March.

K-2 teacher Erica Keay works with students in one of the portable classrooms at Eight Corners Primary School in Scarborough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The building committee has launched a local newspaper ad campaign promoting the project and explaining what’s wrong with the existing schools. Future efforts will address outstanding concerns about losing small, neighborhood schools and the potential impact on taxpayers.

Committee members say the consolidated primary school would be designed to preserve the intimacy of smaller schools and would have minimal impact on the tax rate because Scarborough has a diverse tax base with many commercial and industrial properties.

“This is a communications challenge no matter how much time we have,” said April Sither, a town councilor and former school board member who is on the building committee. She voted against the consolidation plan in 2020, before she understood that renovating the primary schools would disrupt the district for more than a decade, she said.

Town officials and residents agree that winning community support depends on having an acceptable site, a reasonable cost and reliable financial data. Town officials hope to have a purchase agreement for at least one site by late April or early May. Some say that will give them enough time to seek voter approval this fall.

“I think a November referendum is still possible,” said Shannon Lindstrom, school board chair and building committee member. “I’m hopeful we can do this once and we can move forward. Because the need is critical and we still have to build it.”

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