June 20, 2018
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School district to try again for Freeport High School renovation, this time likely through two bonds

The Forecaster | BDN
The Forecaster | BDN
This rendering depicts plans for a $16.9 million expansion of Freeport High School, including a 31,000-square-foot addition, that was defeated at the polls last year.
By Ben McCanna, The Forecaster

FREEPORT, Maine — Regional School Unit 5 voters in November may be asked to decide two bond questions to improve Freeport High School.

This time, however, the total price tag will be about $580,000 less than a $16.9 million project voters defeated in June.

That was the apparent outcome Sept. 11 at an RSU 5 board meeting after a recommendation by the Facility Advisory Committee — a group charged with exploring options to renovate and expand the high school.

The committee’s recommendation calls for two ballot questions:

• Whether to approve a $14.6 million bond for renovations and an addition to the school building, plus repairs to the main athletic field.

• Whether to increase that bond by an additional $1.7 million to build a synthetic turf field and eight-lane track to replace the grass field.

Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said the board will not make any decision on the committee’s recommendation until its Sept. 25 meeting, but the consensus during Wednesday’s meeting appeared to favor the ballot questions. If so, Welsh said she is hopeful voters will approve both questions in November.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” she said. “I know there are concerns about the track and field portion of the project, but I’m hopeful people will support both aspects.”

The committee’s recommendation is based on a recent telephone survey of 445 voters in Durham, Freeport and Pownal.

In June, voters in those towns narrowly rejected the $16.9 million bond package to upgrade both the field and the school. Then in August, pollsters asked voters a series of open-ended questions about the high school and potential renovation projects to see what options they might support.

The survey found that the bond was defeated primarily because of cost, but that wasn’t all. Some voters felt that “the academic and athletic facility improvements should be separate ballot questions,” according to the committee’s report. “Voters also expressed a desire to scale back the athletic improvements rather than scale back the academic improvements.”

The $580,000 cost reduction was achieved by moving art and STEM classes to the school’s existing cafeteria and keeping the library in its present location, according to the report.

The committee reviewed eight potential cost-saving measures, including proposals to reduce the size of the addition and the scope of renovations, but ultimately decided that those cuts were too drastic.

“There weren’t a lot of extras in the original proposal, so when we scrutinized it there weren’t many areas that we could cut,” Welsh said. “We really did look at ways that we could save money. The $580,000 is one way to do it, and separating out the questions and leaving it in the hands of the voters is the best we could do.”

The original proposal, which was defeated 2,202 to 2,028, exposed divisions between the district’s three towns. In Freeport, the proposal was relatively popular among voters, who favored the project 1,623 to 902. In Durham, however, it faced a landslide of opposition, 828-287. In Pownal, it was defeated, 472-118.

A day later, the School Board charged the Facility Advisory Committee to commission the survey.

Of the 445 people surveyed, 55 percent were women and 45 percent were men. Freeport was most heavily represented in the survey, making up 71.6 percent of all respondents. Durham and Pownal made up 18.6 percent and 9.7 percent, respectively.

The survey also found that approximately 52 percent of respondents “felt very to somewhat positive about the RSU 5 school system; 34.4 percent were somewhat to very negative; and 13.7 percent were unsure.”

Meanwhile, the Town Council is still waiting for a separate study on the possibility of withdrawing from RSU 5, which was due earlier this month.

A preliminary opinion from one of the consultants suggests withdrawing could negatively affect Freeport students by reducing academic programs.

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