Town Council and School Board discuss bond for new schools

Updated 07/29/22:  

Correction: The news item "Town Council and School Board Discuss Bond for New Schools" originally posted 07/27/22 included an error in the first sentence of paragraph two.  The estimated cost for the proposed buildings omitted the last three numerals.  The correct amount should have read, "The project, which is currently estimated to cost up to $126,583,000, proposes building two separate school buildings that are connected by common areas including a 650 seat auditorium and gym, as well as allocating nearly $5 million towards prolonging the life of the high school building."

A public hearing on the bond language has been moved to Monday, August 22, 2022.

Updated 07/28/22 to include newly scheduled Building Oversight Committee meeting August 4, 2022 at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom

After nearly six years and 76 meetings, the proposed schematic design and finances for the new schools building project were presented to the Town Council during a joint workshop with the School Board on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.  Last April the council authorized the School Board's request for a $650,000 bond to produce a schematic design for a new elementary and new middle school in order to provide a more accurate estimate of costs and overall design ahead of a referendum targeted for this November.  Chair Jeremy Gabrielson said that the goal for the workshop was to arrive at a consensus for the wording of a bond referendum.  However, none was reached by the close of the workshop.

The project, which is currently estimated to cost up to $126,583,000, proposes building two separate school buildings that are connected by common areas including a 650 seat auditorium and gym, as well as allocating nearly $5 million towards prolonging the life of the high school building.  Renovating the existing schools was considered, but ruled out as an option due to the schools programmatic and physical deficiencies and financial inefficiencies.  A full report analyzing the reasons behind choosing to build new rather than renovate was included with the workshop materials.

Comments received during public comment included questioning the scope of the project based on existing class sizes and declining enrollment.  Calen Colby, a Cape Elizabeth resident and President of the engineering firm Colby Co. involved with the project, responded by saying, "We have to start somewhere and we also have to hedge our bets; class size is really the crux of really good architectural planning."  Currently, 78 percent of the existing school classrooms do not meet the Maine Department of Education's (MDOE) recommended sizing nor facilitate 21st Century Learning.  As discussed at a July 13 Public Forum, 21st century classrooms allow for self-directed and group learning which include areas for: group gathering; connection to outdoors; community connection; ADA accessibility; technology; areas for focus and quiet; and areas for instructional breakouts.  Current classrooms are smaller and based on the outdated form of front-facing lecture seating.  Proper class sizing must also meet building code requirements for life-safety.

The MDOE recommends 1000 square feet for kindergarten classrooms and 800 square feet for classrooms in grades 1-8.  Using the MDOE recommendations, Cape Elizabeth School Department class-size guidelines, building code requirements, educational and environmental psychology data, and various enrollment projection data, the proposed schematic shows adding more classrooms at approximately 840 square feet each - kindergarten withstanding.   Taken from the comments at the Public Forum, Colby said that storage for teaching supplies accounts for the extra square footage.

Another public member in attendance asked if the proposed schools would we prepared in the event of another pandemic.  Colby answered, "We are pandemic ready. We are security ready."

Another attendee questioned whether or not the calculations for maintaining larger facilities had been factored.  Colby responded by saying, "Operating and management costs for buildings like this type [new school] you can expect 15%-30% improved efficiency - which does not include energy.  Since the new buildings are larger, costs may break even.  The current school burns approximately 71 thousand gallons of oil; the new school is modeled on 31-32 thousand gallons of oil."

Moving on to council discussion, councilor Penny Jordan said, "I want to go on record that I am supportive of having to address our schools and supportive of having to construct new schools.  What I need to see is where there is the offsetting of funding.  At this point in time I would not be in favor of bond language that shows $126 million; there has to be some concession and funding strategies."

Councilor Gretchen Noonan said that she disagreed with Jordan, "I think we need to make sure that the town's finances are in tact and healthy."  Following a recent presentation from the town's bond financial advisor, Joe Cuetara, which showed that the town is in strong position to take on debt, Noonan wanted to know how the upcoming Shore Road Rehabilitation project would impact finances, "I would like to see the two numbers and see what that does to our debt level."

Councilor Nicole Boucher commented, "Financially, the town is healthy enough to take on the bond, but I think this is an issue that has continually grown.  We can't remodel in perpetuity. This should have been done a while ago and prolonging it more costs another $4 million every year we put it off."

Items mentioned as considerations for scaling back included the auditorium and other community features, as well as the green roof.  School Board Chair Kimberly Carr, in response to scaling back the scope of the project said, "There are opportunities to scale back, but it is also important to make sure we have what we need."  Noonan wondered if perhaps not including the cost of demolition for the old schools, as well as the town handling the closing of the 1930's building would be appropriate.  Jordan said she would like to see the price come down to $106 million.

Superintendent Christopher Record said, "The School Board needs to decide on the ballot question.  We have heard the feedback and we need to decide how we will move forward."

The Building Oversight Committee will meet on Thursday, August 4 at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom. The next regular School Board meeting is scheduled for August 9.  

More information on the school project can be found here: Cape Elizabeth New Schools website

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