HAMPDEN, Maine — SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons and assistant superintendent Emil Genest started their administrative tenures in Hampden in the early 1990s.
Almost immediately, they began brainstorming plans for a new high school, a process that included working with the Maine Department of Education to join the all-important state-supported list of projects.
“The first year we submitted an application, I think we were 97th on that list,” Genest said with a laugh in an interview this week.
Fifteen years later and SAD 22 is much higher on the list — near the top, in fact — meaning Lyons, Genest and many others finally may get their wish for a new school.
Voters in Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport, the three towns that compose SAD 22, will decide later this month whether to approve a $51 million construction project that would be the state’s most expensive school to date.
“This is the chance of a lifetime [for SAD 22],” Lyons said Tuesday from his office in Hampden. “We think it will help redefine the town of Hampden.”
The school has been preapproved for a site off Route 1A that already is owned by SAD 22. It would be built adjacent to Hampden’s existing elementary and middle schools to create a campus for students from kindergarten through high school. At 175,000 square feet and three stories, the new school wouldn’t be the biggest, but its estimated cost would be the highest on record for Maine.
“But this will last us 60 or 70 years, we hope,” Genest said.
Because the state DOE has approved the project, it will fund a majority of the $51.6 million price tag, 88 percent to be precise. The remaining 12 percent, or about $6.2 million, will be raised locally by taxpayers, if they decide to approve the project.
Like with many state-approved projects, the DOE supports only certain elements. Anything above and beyond what the state will support must be paid for at the local level. In Hampden, a building committee worked for several months to identify the needs of a high school, and came up with four areas that it believed required additional funding. Those areas are:
- A 900-seat performing arts center that could support the entire student body and faculty, estimated to cost $2.6 million.
- Expanded science class-rooms and laboratories that meet national standards, estimated at $1 million.
- A gymnasium and wellness center with the same capacity as the existing Skehan Center, projected to cost $1.7 million.
- An alternative, efficient energy system that could include a geothermal component that would cost about $785,000 more than the state would allow.
The new school also will allow for expansion in the future. Lyons said SAD 22 projects an increase in student population of 1.25 percent in the next 10 years but he thinks the number could be much higher.
“We’re one of only a handful of school districts that didn’t have to consolidate because we met such high standards,” the superintendent said. “I think more and more people will gravitate towards us based on that.”
Lyons said SAD 22 already has begun accepting more tuition students in recent years.
If voters approve the project, they would approve it on an all-or-nothing basis. Specifically, voters cannot approve the project without approving the additional local share of $6.2 million.
Early estimates project that the local share will be about $70 per $100,000 of property valuation on top of the existing mill rates for Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport. Lyons said he understands the concerns of any tax increase but said the investment is long-term and he hoped that residents would place a high value on education. He also said voters would decide later this month whether to accept gifts toward the project, which would defray the costs somewhat and pave the way for a nonprofit foundation down the road.
One looming question tangential to the project is: What will become of the old Hampden Academy?
Lyons and Genest said a committee has been formed that will explore options for reusing the historic property. That process will take several months, they said.
If the project is approved, construction could start as early as next summer and could be completed by the fall of 2011.