June 21, 2018
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Wells High School needs $27 million renovation to stay accredited, school officials say

By Dina Mendros, Journal Tribune

WELLS, Maine — Only a few people of the 30 or so present spoke up at a public hearing regarding the $26.85 million bond referendum to renovate Wells High School that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.

One resident said he was concerned about how people would learn about the need for the renovation. Another said he wasn’t convinced the extent of the renovations proposed were necessary.

Jim Daly, the high school principal, said the renovations are necessary to ensure that students graduating from Wells High School are competitive with students not only throughout the state but also nationally and internationally.

In addition, he said, without building improvements, the school’s accreditation is threatened and could limit students’ ability to get into top colleges and universities.

In 2009, the school was granted accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, but it was on warning status, said Daly.

Yet, Wells High School receives high academic rankings. It’s the fifth highest achieving high school in the state, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 listing of best high schools, and it had the highest graduation rate — at 99 percent — in Maine in 2012. But the building limits student achievement, said Daly.

The improvements are needed because “the way teachers teach has changed, and the way students learn has changed,” he said.

Overcrowding is one of the school’s biggest problems, said the principal.

There’s “no room for collaboration,” said Daly.

The classrooms are too small for groups projects, which are the norm in 21st-century learning, he said, and students often end up in hallways when working on such projects.

In science labs, the problems are even worse because students don’t have enough space to work on experiments, and the equipment is outdated.

Lockers are too small for students’ backpacks, and the cafeteria is too small. The hallways are overcrowded when students arrive at school and when classes are changing.

The performing arts center also needs improvement. Daly said the stage isn’t large enough for many productions, and audience members sitting on the sides cannot see the whole stage.

Another major problem is that the school was not designed for the technology needs of today. Daly said there are dead spots for Internet access throughout the school, and if too many people use the school’s Internet at the same time, it overloads the system.

In addition, there are mechanical, electrical and infrastructure problems, which affects air quality and temperature settings. For instance, one classroom might be too cold and the neighboring room too warm.

As designed, the renovation and expansion would solve these and additional problems at the high school.

The project would renovate the existing space to include a library that is more open and has pull-out space for groups of students to work together, a larger performing arts center that will seat 450, and there will be improvements to the gyms, gym locker rooms and a larger cafeteria.

A new section would be constructed to house the classrooms and will be designed much differently than the current set-up. The new, larger classrooms would be able to open up into the student learning commons that will include tables and chairs where groups of students will be able to work together on class projects. There will also be larger lockers, and the commons area will be designed in a living-room style to be a more comfortable place for students to meet and work.

The new building will be adaptable and flexible so that it can be easily changed for future needs, said project designer Ron Lamarre of Lavalee Brensinger Architects in Manchester, N.H.

A new boiler, heating and electrical systems will also be designed so that they can be adapted in the future for possible geothermal heating and/or the installation of solar panels.

Other changes would include emergency access around the building, 40 new parking spots, a separate visitor entrance, moving the administration offices and better security. The school would also become fully ADA compliant.

The initial projections for the tax impact on residents in Wells and Ogunquit were probably too high, but through talking with Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter, the school district has learned of a way to arrange for lower interest on a bond, he said.

Although at this time there is not an estimate for the actual tax impact of the bond, said Wells-Ogunquit Community School District Finance Director Rick Kusturin, it would be slightly less than the original projections, which for the first year, based on the 2012 valuation, was $49 per $100,000 of assessed property value for Ogunquit residents and $61 per $100,000 of assessed property value for Wells residents. The amount would decrease over the life of the 20-year bond.

The actual tax impact would probably be lower, said Kusturin, due to Carter’s information.

Ogunquit resident Chris Jarochym said he felt the tax impact was too great wasn’t impressed with the plans.

“I don’t know if we need new bricks, maybe [the school] needs new books,” he said.

Despite the months of meetings and prior presentations, Ogunquit resident Mike Cannon said he only recently educated himself on the issue and doesn’t think the general public has enough information to convince them to “vote yes” on the bond referendum.

“If people don’t understand, like I didn’t, [what happens?]” he asked.

There could be a different referendum at a later election for a bond to fund just the infrastructure improvements, which could range between $10 million and $12 million, said Zak Harding, a co-chair of the building committee.

However, even if a lesser bond passed, said Daly, if there are no improvements on the facility that affect how education is delivered, the high school could lose its accreditation.

From now until the election, committee members and other proponents of the renovation will expand efforts to get the word out and educate the public about the need for the bond, said building committee co-chairman Josh Gould.

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