KENNEBUNK, Maine — More than 7,000 residents of Regional School Unit 21 cast their votes Tuesday, with more than 4,800 of them rejecting a $75 million school bond believed to be the largest in Maine’s history.
The final tally was 2,140 yes on the $75 million bond, and 4,870 no. Question 2, seeking approval to accept $1.6 million in a combination of grant and 0 percent loan, also failed, with 3,228 yes votes to 3,757 no votes.
The proposed renovations have been the talk of the RSU’s three towns in the weeks leading up to the vote, from lines in the grocery store to social media sites. Those in support argued that the $74.8 million renovations — $53.5 for Kennebunk High School, $11.32 million for Mildred L. Day School, and $9.96 million for Kennebunkport Consolidated School — were needed to update the three facilities. Those against the plan said the financial effect is just too much for taxpayers to handle.
Polling locations in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel saw a steady stream of voters on Tuesday. By the time the polls had closed, more than 33 percent of Arundel voters had cast a ballot, with 49 percent voter turnout in Kennebunk and more than 60 percent in Kennebunkport.
“It’s my duty to vote. I have been an Arundel resident all my life. I went through this school system,” said Arundel voter Dolly Petrin-Court. “I love coming out to vote. You can’t complain if you don’t vote.”
Kennebunk Town Clerk Joanna Moran said she was “blown away” by Tuesday’s turnout.
“We’re 30 percent ahead of where I thought we were going to be,” she said. “It’s a horse of a different color. It’s an RSU vote and it’s January.”
Kennebunkport Town Clerk April Dufoe said of the town’s 2,550 registered voters, 890, or 35 percent requested absentee ballots.
“There were more absentee ballots requested for this referendum than for the 2012 presidential election,” Dufoe said.
RSU 21 Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said Tuesday night that he is pleased with the voter response, which he said dispelled concerns that voters would not turn out for a January election, and gives a “clear understanding of their position on this issue.”
“The challenge now will be to re-evaluate the incredible needs of these three schools and adjust the plans in such a way that we can convert some of the ‘no’ votes into ‘yes’ votes in a future referendum,” Dolloff said. “That is no small challenge.”
Dolloff said he is hopeful that another, reworked, referendum could be brought forward in June or November, but, he said, “it may take much longer.”
“To appropriately renovate these schools requires plans of the magnitude we presented. Even in a high performing district like ours — or maybe because of the high performance — it is difficult to convince some that investing in infrastructure is a worthwhile endeavor,” he said. “But we will make another attempt at it, for sure. We cannot set this issue aside for future generations, because these schools will not make it to serve future generations if the needs are not addressed.”
The $74.8 million plan, brought forward after about four years of planning by administrators and building committees, is believed to be the largest school bond vote ever brought forward in the state. While the Department of Education does not compile a list of locally funded construction projects, Samantha Warren, director of communications for the department, said that is believed to be the case.
“That’s not surprising, given this involves renovating and adding additions at multiple school locations throughout the district, with one being a large high school with a performing arts center,” Warren said.
Warren said that, according to media reports, other recent entirely locally funded projects include the $47.3 million South Portland High School, $26.85 million Wells High School, and $39.1 million Scarborough High School.
“The state doesn’t compile a list of those locally funded [nonstate] construction projects,” Warren said. “There is a requirement in law that the commissioner of education must approve those projects, but in a local-control state, we honor the local decisions on how they spend their local funds, so that approval takes the form of them letting us know they’ve been locally approved and us recognizing that.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, the renovation projects have been passionately debated on social media sites, including the York County Coast Star’s Facebook page, and letters to the editor have filled the Star’s editorial pages.
The discussion continued after the results, with members of the community talking about how to move best move forward.
“My hope going forward is there are lots of meetings and discussions and full community involvement,” said Arundel resident Robyn Jones. “And by community I mean all three towns all together with civil talks with all involved as to what we as a community need and can afford.”
As voters left the polls Tuesday, reaction on the proposal was mixed.
Kennebunk voter April Morin said she has heard passionate debate on both sides of the issue. While she declined to state how she voted Tuesday, Morin said “it was a tough decision for me.”
“I feel like I did the right thing,” she said.
“It’s a critical vote. Huge,” said Kennebunk voter Cynthia Capobianco, a former teacher. “Good schools are imperative. In order to keep us on the front lines of everyone in the universe, we have to have great schools for kids.”
A couple exiting the Kennebunk polls, who asked not to be named, said there is no question that the three schools need renovations, but they questioned the extent of the work proposed. The couple said they would like to see the plan go back to the drawing board to be “tweaked.”
“We’re retired folks and we’d like to see another plan that doesn’t cost as much,” said the male voter. “We understand the needs, but the cost is just too much.”
The scope of the failed proposal included demolishing two wings of the Mildred L. Day School that have been sinking for the past 30 years; renovating 25,000 square feet at Consolidated School while building 20,000 square feet of new space including a gymnasium; and at Kennebunk High School, rebuilding and reconfiguring athletic fields, including an artificial turf football field, and improved educational space such as a science, technology, engineering and math lab.
Also proposed at KHS was a $10 million performing arts center. After the vote, there was the potential for a larger facility, the Southern Maine Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. The SMCVPA was proposed to be funded primarily by private donations and will move forward only if $20 million in private funding was raised.
The $74.8 million bond was proposed to be repaid over 25 years, with the highest year of repayment happening in 2017. With interest, the total amount to be paid over the life of the bond was $113 million.
Ann Charlton and Jennifer Galipeau contributed to this report.