RSU 34 residents vote Tuesday on Old Town High School expansion

Posted Feb. 06, 2011, at 12:46 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 06, 2011, at 8:45 p.m.

OLD TOWN, Maine — Residents in town and RSU 34 partners Alton and Bradley will vote Tuesday on whether to invest around $5.3 million at Old Town High School for new science labs and art rooms that school leaders say will save the school’s accreditation.

“We’re an accredited school now, but our accreditation is on a probationary status pending a visit in 2012” from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, RSU 34 Superintendent David Walker said Thursday. “I think we have a significant risk for losing our accreditation” if no improvements are made.

“I am very confident with this project we’ll be in very good shape for that next visit,” he said.

The referendum asks residents in Alton, Bradley and Old Town, who consolidated their schools into Regional School Unit 34 last year, to approve an eight-classroom expansion that will add six new science labs and two art classrooms.

The 15,600-square foot expansion also would replace the six outside classrooms, Walker said.

“They were meant to be a temporary solution,” he said. “They are over 20 years old.”

If the expansion is approved, the six current “’50s vintage” science labs inside the school and the art classroom, which is in the old automotive shop, will be renovated into regular classrooms to replace the outside classrooms, Walker said.

“Knowing this project was going to be funded with local tax dollars, we’ve been trying to be efficient as possible,” he said.

Before making the decision to ask residents to approve an expansion, school leaders looked into several options, including upgrading the lab space again and even replacing the entire school, which was built in the early 1950s.

What they found was renovating the second-floor lab space would be very expensive and doing only that would not address the outside classrooms, and “the state of Maine has no money for capital construction” to replace the aging school, Walker said.

RSU 34 already has secured enough federal stimulus funds to pay for more than half of the project.

“We were able to secure $3 million of the $5 million needed for this in qualified school construction bonds that have zero percent interest,” Walker said.

School leaders also have applied to the Department of Education for additional funds that they hope to get with little or no interest, he said.

“The full project could be interest-free [and] that’s a huge selling point,” Walker said.

Plus “in a down economy, contractors are looking for work,” which may result in lower construction costs, he said.

Since RSU 34 is retiring a $100,000 debt payment this year, the impact of the expansion will be lessened, the superintendent said. Under the best-case scenario — zero percent interest for the entire project — it is estimated residents would see an increase of $253,333 with Alton residents paying 50 cents more per $1,000 in property tax, Bradley paying 42 cents more, and Old Town 39 cents more, according to figures posted on the school’s website.

Under the worst-case scenario — $3 million at zero percent interest and the remaining $2.3 million at 4 percent interest — residents would see an estimated increase of $304,154 with Alton paying 60 cents more per $1,000 in property tax, Bradley 51 cents more, and Old Town 47 cents, the figures show.

RSU 34 costs are split among the three communities under a 50-50 formula: 50 percent student population and 50 percent valuation.

Walker said he has given a number of presentations about the project and “the response has been positive. People realize there has been a need for some time at Old Town High School.”

Voting booths in Old Town will be open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday. Bradley voting is from 3 to 8 p.m., and in Alton residents can cast ballots between noon and 6 p.m.

If residents in the three towns approve the project, shovels should hit the dirt this year with the expansion opening in August 2012, Walker said.

“We’re really hopeful people will support the referendum,” he said. “It’s a very effective solution to a number of the facility issues that have plagued Old Town High School for a long time.”

Those who would like more information or to see draft drawings of what the addition would look like, can go to the high school’s website, otsd.org.

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