Maine Department of Education lists communities most in need of new schools

Posted March 09, 2011, at 8:43 p.m.
Last modified March 09, 2011, at 10:39 p.m.

NEWPORT, Maine — In addition to their homework, students attending Newport Elementary School and Nokomis Regional High School must contend with some unusual structural difficulties in the course of a school day.

The elementary school pupils have to bundle up to go outside many times during the day to get from class to class, because the gymnasium is in a separate building and some classrooms are, too. High school students attend school in a building equipped with aging plumbing and a furnace that is “running out,” said RSU 19 Superintendent William Braun Wednesday afternoon. About half of them go to classes in 23 so-called portable, temporary classrooms.

“We’ve ‘temporarily’ had portables at Nokomis all 17 years I’ve been here,” Braun said Wednesday afternoon. “Seventeen years is not temporary.”

But he hopes that the end may be in sight for those portable classrooms and the other structural problems, after the Maine Department of Education released its proposed priority list Wednesday ranking 71 eligible schools that have applied for school construction projects.

Nokomis Regional High School was sixth on the list, with Newport Elementary School ranked third. When funds are available for such projects, the state generally starts at the top and works its way down the list until money runs out.

“It’s fantastic news,” Braun said. “Nokomis is 45 years old at this point. It’s a good building. It’s just tired. We’re just running out of time with it.”

Although the list is just the first step in a long process to having major capital improvements done, it is a good one for Braun’s district.

“I’m hoping by 2016 we’ve got a couple new buildings,” he said.

It has been seven years since the state has rated schools in need of structural help, said department of education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

“In the past, we’ve done these every two, three and four years,” he said. “We didn’t really have money for construction in [more recent years].”

Each school application was reviewed by a member of the state’s evaluation team, which then conducted a site visit and exit meeting with school officials.

The ratings were determined according to a 200-point scoring system that ranks unsafe building and site conditions, program-related facility and system deficiencies, enrollment and overcrowding, and programs and planning. The scoring is based entirely on need, not on fiscal impact, according to the department of education.

The first-rated school on the list, Morison Memorial School in Corinth, received a total of 144.67 points. Newport Elementary School had 141.74 points and Nokomis Regional High School had 140.24 points.

Connerty-Marin said that releasing the list does not automatically mean the state will build new schools or renovate old ones.

“You have to strike that balance — we need our students to be in safe and appropriate learning environments, and we also need to pay for education all across the state,” he said. “The commissioner [of the Department of Education] may say, ‘We can’t afford anything.’”

In the last seven years, since the 2004-2005 rating, the state has funded a total of 22 school renovation or construction projects. In the cycle before that, which started in 2001-2002, the state funded 11 projects. Maine paid for 24 projects and funded 24 projects from the 1999-2000 cycle.

In the past three construction cycles, about two-thirds of the projects have been additions and renovations, with about one-third entirely new buildings, according to the department.

Stephen Bowen, who was just sworn in Friday as education commissioner, said Wednesday that the priority list is crucial.

“The list is a vitally important tool for us in understanding the scope of the needs in our schools,” he said in a prepared statement. “When resources become available, we’ll be able to address the most significant needs first.”

Henry Ashmore, interim superintendent for RSU 24 in Ellsworth and surrounding communities, said that he hoped the funds would be available to help the 15th-ranked school, Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan.

“Sumner is definitely in need of work — it’s an old building,” he said.

Daniel Higgins, superintendent of RSU 64 in Corinth, Bradford, Hudson, Kenduskeag and Stetson, said that his district has seven school projects ranked on the list, including the first and last places. Morison Memorial School is ranked first, Hudson Elementary School is ranked last, and those in between include Central High School in Corinth at 29th place.

“We were very pleased that we had a school rated as highly as we did,” Higgins said. “I think it puts us in a position where we’ll have opportunities.”

In the communities of RSU 64, there has been discussion about construction of a new pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade building, he said.

“In my understanding, there are a variety of options moving forward,” Higgins said.

The next step in the major capital improvement program is an appeals process, then a cost estimation of the highest-rated projects. The commissioner will present the final priority list to the State Board of Education by June or July, Connerty-Marin said, and concept approvals are tentatively scheduled for 2012 and 2013.

The Maine Legislature sets debt limits on bonds that fund such projects, according to Connerty-Marin. Then the commissioner, in close consultation with the governor, determines the amount of money the state will be able to pay for school construction up to that debt limit, he said.

“There’s no guarantees. There are just too many variables,” he said. “But at least now we have a sense of scope and the need for school facilities in Maine, and that’s really important.”

For the entire School Facilities Priority List and a presentation explaining the process, visit the website www.maine.gov/education/const/mcip/home.htm.

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