Orono High School footballer players utilize the field inside the middle of the new track, Oct. 18, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Before recently, it had been nearly 40 years since the last major upgrades to any of Orono’s schools.

But when students returned to school this fall, they were greeted with new cafeterias at both Asa Adams Elementary School and the combined Orono Middle and High School building. There’s also a new, secure entryway at the elementary school along with more spaces where students can receive individualized support from social workers, therapists and other professionals.

And the unveiling of a new track this past weekend marked the completion of a major phase of construction.

“The track is the showpiece, that is a community asset. But, financially, bigger pieces were what we did at the elementary school and middle and high school cafeterias and kitchens,” said Meredith Higgins, superintendent of Regional School Unit 26, the school district that serves Orono.

The work is all the result of a $16.8 million bond Orono voters approved in 2019 with the aim of providing new classrooms and updated spaces to accommodate a growing student population, Higgins said.

The plan is to complete the work this coming spring.

Work on the facilities upgrade has been steady since its start last year. Despite labor and material shortages felt across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Higgins said she is optimistic that the project’s finish will not be delayed too much.

“I think it will be extended a little due to the backlog of materials,” she said. “We’ve done pretty well, but it is catching up with us now, so there will probably be some delays in the last phase.”

In both school buildings, there was a need to expand the cafeterias to accommodate growing student enrollment. At Asa Adams, a new cafeteria allowed the gym to become its own dedicated space, Higgins said.

Another key update was the redesign of the front of the elementary school, which now has a secure entry area and new support spaces.

“One of the things that has changed over the last 40 years is that we serve students in smaller groups now,” Higgins said. “We have social workers, we have therapists, and our schools aren’t designed for that.”

The work that remains includes a new auditorium in the middle-high school, more classrooms and a new central administrative office for the school district that will also be inside the middle-high school, Higgins said. 

Currently, the central office sits in a little red building between the schools. That building, however, was never meant to be a permanent structure. It’s a temporary building that was put up in the late 1980s that’s been used all over campus, Higgins said.

“This is one of the final parts we’re going to do after the completion of the auditorium and classrooms,” she said. “It’ll be a happy day when we’re rid of this portable [building].”

While the project has hit some bumps throughout the pandemic, Higgins said the added space is part of the reason the schools can be completely open today.

“If we knew the pandemic was coming, would we have been so bold as to start this project? Probably not,” she said. “But I think it has resulted in us having more space to spread out and serve students. Last year would have been very difficult to have all students in school with the spaces we had.”

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...