KENNEBUNK, Maine — More than 300 residents filled the auditorium at Kennebunk High School to standing room only Monday to share their thoughts on the proposed $74.8 million renovations to KHS, Mildred L. Day School and Kennebunkport Consolidated School.
During the two-and-a-half hour public hearing before the RSU 21 Board of Directors, residents spoke passionately about the need to renovate the buildings to meet the needs and growth of students and faculty, and most importantly, to improve safety, with some calling the facilities, particularly KHS, an “embarrassment.”
“I was on the verge of being ashamed,” Kennebunk resident Zeb Andrews said of a tour of Kennebunk High School. “If anybody from outside of our community came into this school and got the tour that I got, I would certainly be embarrassed. Ask for a tour. It’s eye-opening.”
A number of residents also passionately argued for and against the RSU 21 Board of Directors’ potential plans to put the renovation projects before voters on a January ballot. While the board has not made a final decision on when the projects will go to vote, some on Monday said taking the projects to a January vote “is disingenuous to voters,” while others said it’s time to move forward.
“This is Maine. Even the people who want to come out and vote in January may have a hard time getting to the polls. We have blizzards, we have ice storms, we lose electricity, all kinds of issues that happen in January,” said April Dufoe, town clerk in Kennebunkport, adding that many of the town’s registered voters go away for the winter and may not be aware of a January election.
In 2009, Dufoe said the RSU held a January election in which 157 Kennebunkport residents, or 6 percent of voters, turned out. Voter turnout in Kennebunk and Arundel was even lower, she said.
“Six percent of the voters should not be deciding this vote for everybody else. This is something that we are going to be paying for the next 20 years and we need to have a majority of voters voting on this, not 6 percent of them. That is not fair. That is not the democratic way,” she said. “I think you really need to think about this because I think you are doing a disservice to the voters and to yourselves.”
Kennebunk resident Dan Limmer said voters will turn out for an election that is important to them, no matter when it is held, and if the board waits it could lose another year before any project moves forward.
“I think the district has put a lot of thought into this. Looking at the number of people in this auditorium and the amount of money involved, I think if people feel they need to vote they will come out regardless,” Limmer said.
The Board of Directors will be looking at election data, said Chairman Kevin Knight, before deciding on when to take the projects to the voters.
“Turn out is not great when it’s not a national election. That’s a fact we have to live by. But what does drive turnout is the issue,” he said. “I hope whatever the board decides that everybody will do their best to get word out that this is an important vote and that we do get the vote out.”
Years of work, a ‘big number’
The projects presented Monday have come from approximately four years of work amongst building committees for each school, the district’s Facilities Committee and the Board of Directors, all working towards a goal of finding the best solution for the three communities, said Tim Hussey, chairman of the RSU 21 Facilities Committee.
While options like closing ML Day or Consolidated School have been explored, Hussey said residents made it clear that they want to maintain an elementary school in each community and that “this is the best option.” The school board cannot close a school, he said. That can only be done by a town vote.”
Hussey said the $74.8 million cost of the three projects is “no doubt” a “big number” and that the groups have not “gotten here lightly.” The committees have spent recent months trimming between 5 and 10 percent off the costs of the project, he said, adding that “this is the minimal of what we should be doing for our district.”
“We really have tried hard to balance the physical interests for all of us as citizens along with the educational needs for our students and this balance is what led us to this recommendation,” Hussey said. “These are not simple surface issues. These are deep-rooted, old, endemic issues in each of these buildings. … I wish prior boards had spent money on not letting these buildings get to this place, but the fact is that they are in this place. This isn’t Band-Aid kind of work, this is significant work that really requires a complete overhaul, frankly, of each of these three buildings.”
If approved by voters, the project cost would not hit taxpayers’ pocketbooks until 2016 or 2017, Hussey said. Over the life of the 20-year bond, interest would increase the total cost to approximately $101 million, said Superintendent Andrew Dolloff.
If voters do not support the projects, Hussey said the need will not go away.
“We will be coming back and having to deal with these issues,” he said. “These issues are real for us. Unfortunately, we can’t just put our head in the sand.”
High school in dire need, officials say
The largest proposal is for Kennebunk High School, proposed to undergo a renovation and expansion for $53.55 million, which includes a stand-alone arts building to house theater and visual and performing arts classrooms. The project also includes rebuilding and reconfiguring athletic fields, including an artificial turf football field, improved educational space like a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] lab, and a cafeteria and library that can accommodate the size of the school.
Kennebunk parent Brett Cox said he is willing to have his seventh grader “do her entire high school career in a construction zone” so that his second grader can go to school at the renovated KHS.
“I am in favor of fixing this place up for students and teachers,” he said. “This school is in tough shape.”
There are currently 684 students at KHS and the facility would be built to accommodate 700 students, with the core areas like the library, cafeteria and gymnasium being built for 750 students. Also, built into the plan is the opportunity to expand and construct additional classrooms on the second floor if the student population rises.
Private fundraising is underway for a larger scale performing arts center, the Southern Maine Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, with organizer’s looking to raise $20 million. If fundraising is unsuccessful, the reduced scale version — including a 500-seat theater, art rooms and stage — will be built within the $53 million project cost for KHS.
The SMCVPA would be a 900-seat theater that could serve as a draw for the visual and performing arts in Southern Maine, Hussey said. The district is not committing to the expanded performing arts center until the $20 million is raised, he said, and an endowment would be created to support maintenance and ongoing costs.
Bob Domine, a member of the RSU 21 Board of Directors who is spearheading the SMCVPA, said organizers have been pursuing lead gifts over the past four weeks, and have received a total of $300,000.
“What we see is that $20 million is a huge number to raise. It would be an extraordinary asset if we were able to raise it and there are a number of people working with us who think we will be able to,” he said. “The lead gifts that we need to build this building are in the order of magnitude of millions of dollars. Gifts like that take some time to cultivate.”
Safety issues to be addressed
Parents on Monday expressed concern over findings at Mildred L. Day School that a portion of the building has been sinking for the past 30 years and is expected to continue. Architects said the sinking is due to the soil in that area of the building and that it is not posing any danger.
“Every time we delay, we are throwing money at a building that is not in good shape. I urge the board to get these project’s underway so that our children are in a safe building,” said ML Day parent Kirsten Camp. “When I hear that my kids are not in a safe building, that’s concerning. I urge you to bring this to a vote.”
The $11.3 million project at the Mildred L. Day School would include a new gymnasium and multi-purpose room, with complete replacement of the portion of the school that has been sinking. The plan includes improvements in security, vehicular and pedestrian traffic-flow, and appropriately-sized classrooms to house all programs within the school — eliminating the need for portable classrooms which are currently used at the school.
At Consolidated School, the $9.96 million project cost would include a complete renovation and updating of the facility, increasing energy efficiency, eliminating portable classrooms, and rebuilding the gymnasium with a full-size court.
“There is nothing radical being done to this building,” Hussey said. “It’s a complete modernization of the existing facilities. We’re not doing anything fancy here.”
Kennebunk resident Lionel Minard asked whether operating costs of the facilities would drop if the project’s are approved and built. Cecil said operating costs would be “less per square foot.”
“For example, KHS is going to increase in size in order to meet program needs so the overall cost of annual operations will go up, but the number you are spending to maintain that space per square foot will significantly decrease,” he said.
Minard recommended that the board consider breaking each project out as a separate warrant article, each to be decided by voters separately.
“If my kid were in a sinking school, I’d be concerned. I live in Kennebunk, I know it’s going to impact my taxes but to lump $53 million to do the high school with the two other ones, frankly, I don’t think makes sense,” Minard said. “I think it’s important the way the referendum is worded if you want to get some of this stuff done. I think you have to separate it out instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Once the Board of Directors adopts the plan for renovating the facilities, Dolloff said the district will offer open houses and tours. There is also a plan in the works for high school students to make a video of the school.