CARIBOU, Maine — The elation of staff and teachers at the Caribou Community School was palpable, even through masks, when U.S. Sen. Susan Collins raised an American flag in front of the new building on Nov. 3 — marking not only the facility’s opening, but also the administration’s triumph after a decade fraught with unprecedented setbacks.
Caribou’s new school was finally a reality.
From negotiating a land swap between Washington, D.C., and the National Park Service to a lone bid that was $12 million over budget, and complications caused by a pandemic, the $54 million prekindergarten through grade eight Caribou Community School project often pushed administrators beyond their limits.
And while the administration purchased the bulk of important materials, such as steel, before the pandemic led to soaring costs and shortages, the decade-long journey to opening day for the new school was far from easy.
Scott Brown, Maine Department of Education’s Major Capital School Construction Program director for 25 years, said COVID’s impact on labor and shipping posed challenges they had never faced before.
“Every project is unique in its own way,” Brown said. “A lot of them bring their own challenges, and this one definitely had challenges all along the process, from the very beginning to planning, design and then to the bidding and construction.”
The state-of-the-art facility boasts 72-inch touchscreen smart TVs, allowing students to broadcast work and projects through their laptops to share with the rest of the class. Classrooms have mobile desks and furniture for multiple configurations, determined by the day’s lesson. Students’ chairs are adjustable in multiple ways to decrease restlessness.
The school also includes three spacious science labs with an Innovation Center focusing on STEM classes, and teachers instruct students from a mobile and adjustable podium, eliminating the need for large desks.
Many of the school’s modern features will also help staff, teachers and students maintain social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The school opened its doors to students on Nov. 9.
It all came about because Caribou’s schools were showing their age in 2010, particularly Teague Park Elementary School and Caribou Middle School, which taught grades 3-5 and 6-8, respectively. Teague Park Elementary School and Hilltop were between 50 and 60 years old, and Caribou Middle School was more than 80 years old.
Regional School Unit 39 — then composed of Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm and led by Superintendent Frank McElwain — asked the Department of Education to evaluate the buildings and make recommendations.
The state saw this as an opportunity to condense the number of schools in the community, Tim Doak, RSU 39’s superintendent since 2015, said, by combining the three schools into one PreK-8 facility meant to house 750 students, with the capacity for an additional 100.
The project’s architects — PDT Architects of Portland (later acquired by CHA Architecture in 2017) — estimated that by building one new energy efficient building and eliminating the aging schools, the district could save nearly $700,000 in energy, operational and labor costs annually for the first two years.
The aging buildings were all equipped with old furnaces, built when fuel was just two cents a gallon. Because the buildings were constructed during a time when fuel was cheap, school officials at the time said there was no need to insulate them.
The new Caribou Community School’s biomass boiler would heat the building during the winter while a small gas-powered boiler would heat water during the warmer months.
Roughly five years after the first DOE visit, a site selection committee consisting of school administrators, architects and the Maine DOE analyzed potential locations using factors such as safety, traffic flow and vicinity to public safety resources. The group determined that Teague Park — located adjacent to the elementary school of the same name — was the ideal spot.
Swapping land for a school site
The project committee chose Teague Park because of its vicinity to the police and fire station, enough surrounding land for playgrounds and athletics, and its central location that not only made it easier for children to walk or bike to school, but also enhanced the city’s aesthetics.
“I believe strongly that Caribou has always enjoyed having schools in the middle of their community,” Doak said. “I believe the state does too, because if you’re paying for 95 percent of the project you’re going to want taxpayers to see where that money went.”
The next steps in a school project normally would include holding a community straw poll, finalizing site designs with the architects, receiving final site approval from the Maine Board of Education, and then putting the project out to referendum for the RSU 39 communities.
But in late 2015, Caribou Parks and Recreation Superintendent Gary Marquis, who sat on the building committee, told administrators the school could not legally be built where Teague Park stood unless a land swap occurred.
Judah D. Teague gave the park land to the city in 1897, and the National Park Service since then awarded federal grant money for the city to build a tennis court and softball field on the property. As a result, any action with the park requires National Park Service approval and a land transfer agreement that would include a land swap of equal value.
During a July 2016 meeting with the building committee, Marquis asked architect Lyndon Keck of PDT how early the park service would need to approve the land swap in order to hold a November referendum.
“Today,” Keck said. “You would need state Board of Education approval by early September or August. It’s just not going to happen.”
The news added more stress onto an already complicated process. Officials had hoped to bring the new school project to referendum during the November 2016 election, but had to accept that the land swap process would likely push that date to February 2017.
Before the land swap could happen, officials needed to receive land appraisals from the National Park Service. The land exchanged for the park would need to be of equal value, but not necessarily equal size. For example, if one acre of the park’s land is worth $5,000 and an acre of swamp land is worth $1,000, then five acres of the swamp land would need to be exchanged for each acre of park land.
The appraisals came in on Jan. 6, 2016, and major properties involved in the swap would include the existing Caribou Learning Center across the street, the former Sincock School on Main Street and a portion of the Hilltop Elementary School land.
The swap let administrators proceed with the project and gave the city a brand new park across the street, a dog park on Main Street and ball fields next to Hilltop Elementary School.
But the school project wasn’t out of the woods just yet. The land swap still needed federal approval before the rest of the project could proceed.
Hoping to speed that up, Doak wrote a letter to Sen. Collins, a Caribou native, asking for assistance.
“She said, ‘I’ve never had requests from my hometown and I would love to help you guys out.’ She was instrumental in getting that process moving,” Doak said.
The land swap was approved in October 2016, and the State Board of Education unanimously approved placing the school at the Teague Park location during a Dec. 14 meeting in Portland.
Voters on Feb. 7, 2017, approved the $45,640,112 base project and a second question asking for an additional $2,327,724 to fund a second gym and increased music room space. This portion would be paid by each of the three RSU 39 communities over the course of the next 20 years.
And while Caribou and Stockholm voters overwhelmingly favored the questions, voters in Limestone shot down both.
Limestone leaves RSU 39
Tensions had been growing between Limestone and RSU 39 since 2015, when Doak proposed busing the town’s high school students to Caribou. He said while the potential consolidation would likely result in a loss of identity within the community, it would also give Limestone residents an opportunity to take more diverse and advanced courses while saving money for everyone in the district.
And while the concept of sending the high school kids to Caribou was in its infancy in 2015, it came to fruition shortly after the referendum passed in 2017. This time, RSU 39 was facing a $1.4 million funding shortfall for the 2017-18 school year, and estimated that moving Limestone’s 9-12 grade classes to Caribou could result in annual savings of approximately $600,000.
A withdrawal petition began circulating in Limestone shortly after a March 15 RSU 39 meeting when the idea was pitched again, and received overwhelming support from the community, who felt that Caribou’s financial burdens should not fall to Limestone.
Limestone resident Fred Pelletier, during a March 2017 meeting held between RSU 39 and the town, said that Limestone, which was hit hard by the 1994 closure of Loring Air Force Base, couldn’t afford to lose any more facilities. The loss of high school students would also mean the loss of sports teams and teachers
“It’s going to affect the economy of this town if we keep losing,” Pelletier said. “Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to draw a line in the sand and say we don’t want to lose. I don’t want to lose anymore. We’ve lost enough.”
Shortly afterward, RSU 39 voted to send Limestone’s 9-12 students to Caribou, and Limestone circulated a petition for the town to spend up to $40,000 on the withdrawal process, which included hiring an attorney to help draft the agreement.
The town formally approved withdrawal from the district during the 2018 election on Nov. 6, and officially withdrew on July 1, 2019. Now, Limestone is a PreK-8 school, and high school students can tuition to high school in Caribou or another nearby town, such as Fort Fairfield.
‘I was very close to calling 911’
School construction projects are set up around a design, bid, build process in order to make it efficient and economic, and competitive bidding often drives down costs, Doak said.
“It makes sense — until you only get one bid,” he said.
And that bid, from Bowman Constructors of Newport, was $12 million over budget.
Doak and administrators sat speechless in the RSU 39 conference room when they heard the bid in early 2018.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Doak said. “I thought I went into cardiac arrest when they read out the bid in the conference room. I was very close to calling 911.”
He said everyone just looked at each other, wondering how to process the news.
“What do we do? It’s $12 million,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure on me.”
They had two options: work with the state and contractor and come to a compromise or wait six months, delay the project and hope for a better bid.
The odds of receiving a better offer were low, with most major construction companies taking jobs in southern Maine, where new projects are constantly popping up, Doak said. There is little incentive to drive several hundred miles north to Aroostook County. Because of this, the superintendent decided to go with the first option and work with the high bid.
“I went down to meet with the Commissioner, the DOE and the construction people and I begged for $5 million,” Doak said, in an effort to bridge the $12 million gap between the budget and the bid.
And just a few weeks later — in July 2018 — the state approved his request.
“They loved Caribou,” he said. “They loved our school, its design, and that it was consolidating. They wanted this school to be in northern Maine, so we got the extra money.”
Administrators still had two more obstacles: cutting $7 million from the project, and holding a referendum asking RSU 39 communities if they would accept the extra money.
The referendum passed, and administrators managed to make $7 million worth of cuts in just two weeks.
Doak said the cuts included reducing the number of bleachers in the main gym, relocating the boiler room, eliminating some playground equipment and changing the pitch of the roof slightly.
Between Bowman Constructors, the architects and RSU 39, Doak said everyone worked double-time trying to figure out where to cut $7 million. The chaotic and confusing cutting eventually worked itself out, but Doak said even at the end of the project he and administrators were discovering items that were cut.
“I always thought we were keeping 250 bleachers in the gym, but it was cut down to 140,” he said. “I’m thinking if we have a big event or basketball game we’ll probably get a number of parents. We might have to put chairs up.”
But none of these cuts affected the integrity of the school.
“Hearing the bulldozers roaring will be music to my ears,” Doak said during a July 2018 board meeting.
Workers broke ground in August 2018, and the $54 million project that had been in discussion for eight years was finally taking shape on Bennett Drive with a planned opening date of August 2020.
Dealing with the pandemic
In March 2020, schools shut down and switched to remote learning. Desks, chalkboards and teaching materials crowded the Teague Park Elementary School gym over the summer as building materials needed for the school failed to arrive on time due to COVID-19 shipping restrictions, prompting speculation about whether the project would meet its deadline.
The school was no longer receiving materials on time. Some of these materials, like cabinetry and flooring, sat on docks in Italy for several months before they were eventually delivered, Doak said.
Meanwhile, workers were leaving. Many joined other projects, which Doak said were still in demand in the southern part of the state.
At one point the project needed 30 painters, but only six were available. “We had to scramble, and we found a painting company out of Lewiston that sent six painters.”
The virus led to hundreds of change orders, Doak said. The back driveway had to be redesigned to handle multiple dismissal areas so students could maintain social distancing. Light switches and water fountains had to be changed. Administrators had to take a close look at furniture ordered more than a year ago and determine if it would pose any health risks amid the pandemic.
“We were looking at collaboration when we designed all these classrooms, so we had tables that would sit six kids each,” he said. “But when we put the chairs and tables in the classes, I said ‘We can’t do this; they’re not even three feet apart.’ So I had to go out and order 650 desks for about $112,000.” The extra money for the new desks came out of $1.2 million in COVID-19 relief funds the state gave to the district.
Issues caused by COVID, while each manageable, began to add up and cause delays.
“We’d be crazy to say COVID never played a role in the delay, because it did,” Doak said. “Materials just weren’t being shipped for a long time. Nobody was making anything.”
RSU 39 voted in late August to delay the opening of in-person classes to Oct. 13. Behind the scenes, Doak began applying much more pressure on the contractors and architects to finish the project on time.
“I started to show a side of myself that most people have never seen,” he said. “I think one thing really clicked — I went public with everything. That’s when I started posting weekly updates. I think between the architect and contractors, they don’t want people to think it’s their fault either.”
In September, the date was pushed from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, with Doak citing delays in furniture deliveries.
The school saw a final delay in early October while it waited for the city code enforcement office to issue a certificate of occupancy.
Doak thought it would delay the opening until mid-November but by Oct. 23, the certificate had been issued and the school opened for student instruction on Nov. 9.
The school officially opened to teachers and staff on Nov. 3 — Election Day — a milestone kicked off by a visit from Sen. Collins, who raised an American flag from Washington, D.C., designed specifically for the school, and shared stories of how the Caribou school system positively affected her in her younger years.
Collins led the masked group in the pledge of allegiance, and they roared with applause after her remarks.
One week later, students donning masks ran onto the new campus as school officials directed them to designated entrances based on grade level — one of the school’s many social distancing measures amid the pandemic.
Just one month earlier, these students were split between five different buildings throughout the city, including the rec center, the high school ski building and a former daycare building on Route 161.
Nov. 9 marked the first time in eight months that many of the kids had seen their teachers in person.
“It’s just a thrill to be able to move forward with the children and to work with our staff again,” Caribou Community School Principal Leland Caron said.
“We’re very excited for RSU 39 — for what they’ve gone through and what they’ve done,” DOE’s Brown said. “There will be generations of students impacted by all of that hard work and effort. It’s a great thing for RSU 39.”
Brown said it will be about a year until the entire project is completed, as additional demolition and site work remains.
“We have a school,” Doak said. “My mother always told me good things happen to those who wait — she never said it would take 10 years off my life, though.”