AUGUSTA, Maine — When it comes to building a new Edward Little High School, patience could pay off.
For the past year, Auburn officials have said state funding for a new high school wasn’t a possibility.
The School Committee has asked the City Council to approve a referendum in February to ask voters to approve a new high school, which could cost $62 million, with local property tax dollars. That would mean a tax increase of $336 per year on a $150,000 home.
But on Friday, Maine Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier said the state is proceeding with a list of construction projects and, historically, the first 20 projects on the list have been funded.
Edward Little is No. 16. Schools are ranked in order of need.
The state has been cautious, last year only approving the first six projects. Now, the state is about to consider more on the list, Rier said, possibly another six.
That doesn’t mean Edward Little will get approved for state funding this year, but it could happen within several years. “Being No. 16 doesn’t guarantee anything, but it isn’t hopeless,” Rier said.
That new perspective could change things, said school Superintendent Katy Grondin and Tom Kendall, chairman of the School Committee and New High School Steering Committee.
Deputy Commissioner Rier will meet with the New High School Steering Committee on June 20, Kendall said.
“This has given us the opportunity to look again at the prospect of waiting for state funding,” Grondin said. “We absolutely would like to have state funding.” At the June 20 meeting, the group will hear about the school construction list “to make sure we aren’t missing anything, to get a different perspective.”
Auburn officials have said that state funding would not be available for up to 10 years, and the state may not get to the 20 schools on the list “and have to start over,” Grondin said. She said Friday that she welcomes “a glimmer of hope.”
Rier “cannot guarantee anything, but he can give us his best guess. We’ll come to our own conclusion on yes, it’s worth waiting for state funding, or no it’s not.”
One worry is Edward Little is on probation for its accreditation because of the poor condition of the building. The 1961 school is energy inefficient, has poor air quality due to poor ventilation, inadequate space, a cafeteria built in what was basement, and a lack of classroom space and athletic fields.
“We can’t stay on probation forever,” Kendall said. Rier may be able to work with accreditation officials “to help them understand we are doing what we can.”
Rier said there’s a provision in the state funding law that allows school districts to build early, but only when the district has secured state funding approval.
Rier said he’ll meet with Portland officials this week and Auburn officials in June to go over the “interest-only interim local financing.”
If a school project has been approved for state funding but the money won’t be available for several years, interest-only interim local financing allows a school district to move ahead and build, if they agree to pay for the interest in the first two to three years, Rier said.
For instance, a $40 million project at 4 percent interest would cost a school district $1.6 million in interest a year, Rier said. After two or three years, there would be room in the state budget to take on more debt as other projects are paid off, he said. At that point, the state would take over the majority of costs for the next 20 years, he said.
On Wednesday, a Portland Press Herald story quoted a Portland finance director telling the school board that two Portland school projects were guaranteed state funding in the next few years. One is No. 12 on the list, the other No. 18.
That’s not true, Rier said, adding the message was exaggerated. “Nothing’s changing here. We’re making sure it’s clear to them how the process works and that they could have that option.”
When a school project gets state funding approval, “the state picks up most of the costs,” Rier said.