Bar Harbor voters will decide on Nov. 2 whether to spend $3 million to design, engineer and pursue permitting for a major renovation and expansion of the aging Conners Emerson School.
The school, which houses grades kindergarten through 8, serves about 350 students each year. The town has spent $2.7 million over the past 20 years in order to keep its two separate buildings functioning, but town officials believe it’s time to devote money to a major renovation project rather than continually trying to make piecemeal repairs to the existing buildings.
If voters approve the $3 million referendum question, it would reflect general support in Bar Harbor for overhauling and constructing a major addition onto the Emerson building, officials said. The renovations likely would cost in excess of $35 million, in addition to the $3 million that would fund the design and permitting phase.
Officials are hoping to demolish and remove the 28,000 square-foot Conners building, which dates from the early 1950s and currently houses younger students. A new wing, attached to the Emerson building, would be constructed so all grades would be housed in a single building for the first time.
The projected construction costs could change depending on the final plan that town officials choose.
Carla Haskell, an Ellsworth-based architect who has worked closely with the school board over the past few years to explore options and to develop a project overview, said the $3 million expenditure that voters are being asked to approve would cover all preliminary aspects of the project. That includes design, permitting and bidding. The project would still need to proceed to another referendum vote to approve a final design and construction costs before physical work could begin, she said.
Overhauling the Emerson building and building a 45,000-plus square-foot addition onto it, which would more than double its size, is cheaper than tearing down both the Emerson and Conners buildings in favor of an entirely new structure, Haskell said. It also saves elements of the Emerson building that school officials want to keep, such as the gymnasium and library.
“That hit the sweet spot for everybody,” Haskell said.
The current buildings have little-to-no insulation in classroom walls, outdated boilers, insufficient air exchange, inadequate water pipes, leaky roofs that need frequent repair and a lack of gender neutral bathrooms, school officials have said. That would be fixed by the renovation.
The new wing will ideally have needed space for special needs students and one-on-one instruction, both of which the current buildings lack, Haskell said. A new auditorium would be part of the addition, eliminating the need to stage performances in the school gym.
“It’s a big thing for security and for site circulation” to have all students located in one building, she said.
The preferred sketch plan for the project would involve a two-story addition being built onto the north side of the existing Emerson building, resulting in more than 80,000 square feet of floor space under one roof, and possibly a central courtyard accessible only through the building. The existing Emerson building would be “gutted,” Haskell said, with an entirely new heating and ventilation system installed, and its electrical system upgraded to allow solar panels to be installed on the roof.
With the Conners building demolished, the school grounds on the 11-acre property also would be redone with a new vehicle access and parking design. It likely would include areas for outdoor learning, she said. The Conners building feasibly could be used while the Emerson rebuilding is being transformed, and the preliminary construction cost estimate includes the possibility of using classroom trailers on the property.
If voters approve the $3 million for the initial phase on Nov. 2, “there will be a re-hashing of all that info,” Haskell said of developing a final building design and project plan.
Two years ago, town officials discussed whether a new school should be built where the town’s ball fields are located on the corner of Park and Main streets. They ultimately decided that reusing the current site would be less expensive and would preserve the existing ballfields, which many residents said they preferred to do.
There has been discussion in recent years among school officials on Mount Desert Island about creating a consolidated, island-wide middle school. Bar Harbor officials have said that developing consensus on that option, and then planning and building such a school, likely would take several years. Even if an island-wide middle school is built, Bar Harbor needs a vastly improved school for its elementary school students, town officials have said. If middle school students someday go to a different school on the island, part of the new Emerson building could feasibly provide other uses to the community, such as programs for seniors.
Bar Harbor officials do not expect to get any financial assistance from the state for the Emerson project. The Maine Department of Education has said that because the project would not involve the consolidation of multiple schools, which is part of the state’s long-term strategy of reducing education costs, it will not help fund the project.