KENNEBUNK, Maine — Voter rejection of a $75 million plan to renovate three schools will have school officials soon talking about what’s next, while voters have already begun that discussion.
Debate leading up to Tuesday’s vote split the community, with some arguing that renovations were necessary for schools and students, while others said the proposal was too costly. Looking forward, many say they want to move ahead as a community and help come up with the right plan.
More than 7,000 residents of RSU 21 cast their vote Tuesday, with more than 4,800 of them rejecting the proposed $75 million school bond — including $53.5 million in renovations for Kennebunk High School, $11.32 million for Mildred L. Day School and $9.96 million for Kennebunkport Consolidated School — which is 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.
By the time the polls closed Tuesday, more than 33 percent of Arundel voters had cast a ballot, with 49 percent voter turnout in Kennebunk and better than 60 percent in Kennebunkport.
“Although the referendum failed, it was great to see the turnout. We feel good about the fact that the community participated in this decision. In terms of where we go now, these three buildings still have some pretty serious deficiencies,” said Kevin Knight, chairman of the RSU 21 Board of Directors. “The real positive takeaway is that we had real community engagement on this and a high voter turnout. I think the hope is that that passion and momentum will go forward into the community working together to find a solution.”
RSU 21 Facilities Committee Chairman Tim Hussey said the committee will meet today, Jan. 30, and he anticipates members will “start to digest what happened and what our options are.”
The committee will likely need direction from the school board, he said, which will meet for the first time following the referendum on Monday, Feb. 3.
“My position is that we need to do something, and this was a very disappointing result because I felt strongly that this work all needs to be done and it’s the right thing to do,” Hussey said. “We’re going to now have to look at some proposals that have some compromises, and frankly, won’t get done what’s really needed but that’s what the voters decided.”
RSU 21 Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said he is “hopeful” that another referendum could be brought forward in June or November, but he said, “it may take much longer.”
“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. That is no small challenge,” he said.
Residents share thoughts on solution
Many voters on the York County Coast Star Facebook page, who said they are willing to join in future discussions, have already begun to look at what’s to come.
“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.”
Some said they would like to see a scaled back version of the plans, others said they are interested in alternative options, like exploring closure of one of the elementary schools.
“It really does need to be addressed. What would the cost be to close those two schools and utilize the other schools that are so very close by? Cut back on some of the extravagant things that were proposed for the high school and see if the numbers would be more palatable,” Jones said. “Then Arundel could utilize the M.L. Day site for the new town hall/community center they want and desperately need.”
Kennebunk resident Jeff McCulloh suggested a separate plan for each school that would follow the priorities of needed repairs for safety and codes, ADA compliance, other structural repairs and energy efficiency, new classrooms in order of priority and then any other items.
“Most people I talked to had no problems with what they perceived as legitimate and needed repairs, but the overall price tag was just too high,” he said.
While a revised plan for the buildings could be coming back to voters, they could also see Question 2 again, which asked voters to accept $1.6 million in a combination of grant and 0 percent loan to be used for life safety issues. Hussey said those funds need to be expended by July 2015 and said he could envision bringing them back before voters this spring.
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 like a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] lab.
Also proposed at Kennebunk High School 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 center was proposed to be funded primarily by private donations and will move forward only if $20 million in private funding was raised.
Bob Domine, a member of the RSU 21 Board of Directors who is serving as president of the Southern Maine Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, said the Southern Maine Center for the Visual and Performing Arts board will meet over the coming weeks and days to determine its next steps.
Domine previously said that there are two schools of thought — one that Tuesday’s vote was essential for the Southern Maine Center for the Visual and Performing Arts vision to move forward, and another that it wasn’t.
“We certainly still have the option to speak with major donors,” Domine said. “We could turn back around to the citizens and say ‘now we have commitments, do you want to do this now?’ I don’t think we’ll give up. I think it’s a good idea.”