Battle lines drawn, yet ‘respectful’ debate about Crooked River project

VOTE YES — Margo Tremblay waves at passing cars while rallying with other Casco residents on Saturday, April 2 to support the referendum to renovate and re-open Crooked River School. The vote takes place April 12 in all four towns of SAD 61.

VOTE YES — Margo Tremblay waves at passing cars while rallying with other Casco residents on Saturday, April 2 to support the referendum to renovate and re-open Crooked River School. The vote takes place April 12 in all four towns of SAD 61.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Penn Worcester got his wish.

Asked to serve as moderator of Tuesday night’s public hearing on the proposed Crooked River School renovation/construction project, Worcester set the tone for the evening with his opening comments.

The long-time town meeting moderator asked the audience to present a “civil and respectful” discussion regarding the $7.88 million proposal.

“Let’s sit down, talk and accomplish something here tonight. Let’s be positive,” he said to over 100 in attendance inside the Lake Region High School gym.

With both sides hitting local streets this past weekend with rallies across the district, hoping to bring awareness of the April 12 vote, rhetoric has heated up.

SAD 61 mailed out to area residents an information-packed brochure outlining the project, as well as addressing the serious overcrowding at Songo Locks School. The Naples elementary school was built 25 years ago with a capacity of 380. Currently, the school has squeezed over 460 into the facility, utilizing spaces such as closets that now serve as special service quarters.

Meanwhile, Friends of Sebago Elementary mounted their “no” campaign by handing out flyers in Pondicherry Square in Bridgton on Sunday, while also mailing lime green “Vote No” cards to residents.

“Send a strong message to the SAD 61 School Board that they are still not listening to the voters in all four district towns,” the card states. “$7.88 million for the Crooked River expansion/renovation project is still too expensive, too big and will take too long…Spend less and solve overcrowding by September 2016.”

The Friends of Sebago Elementary gathered in Bridgton on Sunday afternoon to spread their message of opposition to the current CRES proposal. Many gathered at the intersection with signs and fliers to let people know that they support the students, but believe a faster, less expensive solution is possible to alleviate the overcrowding at Songo Locks School. Their message: “Vote No on April 12! End overcrowding now, not two years from now!”

The Friends of Sebago Elementary gathered in Bridgton on Sunday afternoon to spread their message of opposition to the current CRES proposal. Many gathered at the intersection with signs and fliers to let people know that they support the students, but believe a faster, less expensive solution is possible to alleviate the overcrowding at Songo Locks School. Their message: “Vote No on April 12! End overcrowding now, not two years from now!”

About the project

Superintendent of Schools Al Smith opened the hearing by giving an overview of the proposed school project.

Initially, he described overcrowding at Songo Locks and how the space problem is “driving education.” He later pointed out that if the CRES project fails on April 12, the school board will need to take a hard look at bringing aboard portable units (the district currently pays $4,000 a month for portables) to ease overcrowding until a long-term solution is developed. He pointed out that the district would also be pressed to address parking lot and entrance congestion.

Smith then talked about Crooked River, which opened in 2005. Because the state allowed the district to build based on current student enrollment figures, the day the facility opened, it was too small. SAD 61 was forced to add seven or more portables, which took space away from parking and playgrounds.

All but one classroom fail to meet current square footage minimums. Many rooms are odd-shaped and there is a lot of “wasted space” that was previously used as common areas for group work.

School Board chairman Janice Barter said it has been six to eight years since Crooked River was used as an elementary school, and would require significant upgrades.

Architect Stephen Blatt noted that once a wall is opened in the structure, the school becomes subject to current codes, such as adding a sprinkler system ($75 to $85,000).

Former school board member Richard Merritt of Sebago brought attention to a February 2014 board vote to spend $468,000 to reopen Crooked River as a Grade 4-5 facility. Merritt said school officials termed the plan “not ideal but doable.”

Barter responded by saying directors rescinded the vote, feeling what was proposed would not be a “long-term solution.” To rescind the vote, two directors who voted for the previous measure had to bring up a motion to rescind and the other second the motion.

Directors put the overcrowding issue as the first order of business for new superintendent, Al Smith.

Blatt estimated that it will take $2.5 million in renovations to address code requirements.

Smith concluded his presentation noting that by adding square footage, CRES will be able to meet the district’s present drive to keep classes to 18 to 20 students. The school is projected to accommodate 300 students, but could be bumped up to 350 if the district experiences a “bubble.”

If the project is approved, when the doors open in either December 2017 or the start of 2018, the projected enrollment will be 250 to 260.

OUT ON THE CAUSEWAY Connor, Brady, & Matthew Cribby, Tyler Stuart, in Naples, supporting a "Yes" vote. CROOKED RIVER SCHOOL PROJECT Architect: Stephen Blatt Architects (Preliminary Project Budget) CONSTRUCTION • New construction, 15,360 square feet, @ $210, $3,225,000 • Renovations, 23,500 square feet @ $100, $2,350,000 • Oil tank replacement, fire pump and water storage, $125,000 • Sitework, $450,000 Subtotal: $6,150,000 ADMINISTRATIVE COST & RESERVE • Technology & equipment, $350,000 • Advertising, insurance, legal permits, $30,000 • Bid contingency, 5%, $310,000 • Project contingency, 5%, $310,000 Subtotal: $1,000,000 FEES & SERVICES • Architect/Engineer basic services, $520,000 • Architect/Engineer additional services, $30,000 • Architect/Engineer reimbursable expenses, $20,000 • Environmental permitting/planning board, $30,000 • Construction testing/soils/surveys, $30,000 • Clerk of Works, 100,000 Subtotal: $730,000 PROJECT TOTAL: $7,880,000 PROJECT TIMELINE April 12, referendum vote June 15, design development completed Oct. 14, construction documents completed Nov. 11, bid opening December 2016, construction initiation date December 2017, construction complete

OUT ON THE CAUSEWAY Connor, Brady, & Matthew Cribby, Tyler Stuart, in Naples, supporting a "Yes" vote.
CROOKED RIVER SCHOOL PROJECT
Architect: Stephen Blatt Architects
(Preliminary Project Budget)
CONSTRUCTION
• New construction, 15,360 square feet, @ $210, $3,225,000
• Renovations, 23,500 square feet @ $100, $2,350,000
• Oil tank replacement, fire pump and water storage, $125,000
• Sitework, $450,000
Subtotal: $6,150,000
ADMINISTRATIVE COST & RESERVE
• Technology & equipment, $350,000
• Advertising, insurance, legal permits, $30,000
• Bid contingency, 5%, $310,000
• Project contingency, 5%, $310,000
Subtotal: $1,000,000
FEES & SERVICES
• Architect/Engineer basic services, $520,000
• Architect/Engineer additional services, $30,000
• Architect/Engineer reimbursable expenses, $20,000
• Environmental permitting/planning board, $30,000
• Construction testing/soils/surveys, $30,000
• Clerk of Works, 100,000
Subtotal: $730,000
PROJECT TOTAL: $7,880,000
PROJECT TIMELINE
April 12, referendum vote
June 15, design development completed
Oct. 14, construction documents completed
Nov. 11, bid opening
December 2016, construction initiation date
December 2017, construction complete

A couple times during the evening, officials noted there are no plans to close Sebago Elementary, despite the expansion at CRES.

Smith also pointed out that regardless of how the April 12 vote goes, the alternative high school program, which is currently housed at Crooked River, will be moved next year to the White House (a portable unit) off the vocational center. Smith said by moving the Alt Ed there, students will be able to access various programs, such as music and art, which they currently are unable to do.

Finally, in terms of costs, Smith said the district would begin paying for the project once construction is complete. Thus, the first payment may be due in April 2018. SAD 61 will see to major bonds (LRMS and Stevens Brook) retired in 2019 and 2020 — a cost of $570,000. The annual payment, with interest for Crooked River is projected to be $590,000. District calculations place the average cost to taxpayers at 13 cents per day or $4 more per month.

Opponents reminded taxpayers that the Crooked River project is $7.88 million but with interest, it tops the $10 million mark.

SAD 61 is not in line for state dollars for new construction or renovations. The state’s construction list is quite long, and only a few projects are funded each year.

Another factor to consider is the state push for school systems to add a Pre-Kindergarten program. Smith is a major advocate of Pre-K, but realizes the district would have a difficult time to bring this aboard unless overcrowding is successfully eased.

What the public said

Allen Crabtree of Sebago, a former selectman there, summed up the current situation.

“I don’t think there is a person here that disagrees there is overcrowding at Songo Locks, and we need to correct it,” he said. “The difference is not what, but the how and when. I’m in the camp that the project is too expensive and takes too long to help the kids at Songo Locks that are in this crowded situation.”

Crabtree suggested two possible solutions. One, go back to a 2015 idea that proposed to add 4,000 square feet to Crooked River at about $4.4 million to bring up space capacity to 250.

He also suggested that Songo Locks and Crooked River follow the elementary models existing in Bridgton and Sebago — go to K-5 schools, with students attending school in their hometowns.

By current student population numbers, Naples has 242 students, and Songo Locks can accommodate 380. Casco has 206 elementary-aged students, and Crooked River can take on 220. With the renovation, the number can be pushed to 250.

While Smith spoke about the advantages of a 3-4-5 grade configuration, others pointed to the success of other local schools that feature K-5.

Phil Lowe of Sebago, who serves on the town’s budget committee, said taxpayers should be leery about rising school district debt.

In the current proposed budget (Article 11), the debt service payment is $2,092,191, which is a reduction of $71,083 due to a decrease in interest charges. The district owes money on Stevens Brook Elementary (off the books in 2020); Lake Region Middle School addition and high school athletic fields (paid in full in 2019); LRHS, LRVC and Maintenance building construction/renovation project (paid in full in 2026, 2030 and 2031).

Kevin Murphy of Bridgton, who has helped spearhead the Vote Yes campaign, reiterated that a couple of bonds come off the books over the next few years and will ultimately offset the new project.

Gary Lewis of Casco, the father of two small children, admits he like many struggle with finances from time to time, but sees a tax hike of $48 to $50 worth the investment for his children, as well as generations to come.

Denise Olsen of Sebago, a leader of Friends of Sebago Elementary, reminded school officials that many taxpayers are on fixed incomes and could find even a $40 to $50 bump in their taxes difficult to bear. She noted two residents — one from Bridgton and one from Casco — made that point at a previous hearing.

Kathleen Cribby of Naples asked if the project is voted down — which the Friends of Sebago Elementary are supporting — will it help solve overcrowding? Smith said, “no.”

“How does a no vote get it done quicker? They will have to go back to the drawing board, hold more hearings, we’ll be back have the same conversations again,” Cribby said. “I have faith in the board that has worked hard on this. It is in no one’s best interest to inflate this. Voting ‘no’ doesn’t get us into Crooked River any quicker.”

Chris Roy of Bridgton, a physical therapist, emphasized the importance of having top-flight schools, which is a magnet for young professionals.

“When I talk with young professionals, the first thing they ask is, ‘What are your schools like?’ When we bought a home in Bridgton, it was because of the school,” he said. “We were thinking about moving to Fryeburg if Lake Region High School hadn’t been improved. We need functional buildings.

Annette Thomas of Sebago said education is not about the physical facility, but what “kids do there.” She agrees a solution is needed but at a “more reasonable cost.”

Grant Plummer of Casco, a town selectman and parent, said it was time to address “the elephant in the room” — Sebago’s possible withdrawal from SAD 61 and school closure there. Plummer said the district needs everyone working together toward a solution. While he expects a certain percentage of voters to reject the Crooked River project because “they don’t want to see their taxes go up,” he worries about another big 500-plus vote against the plan from Sebago.

Joe McMahon, Sebago’s school board director, said the problem starts with animosity created by district leaders.

“It didn’t have to happen,” McMahon said. “You have to take responsibility for what you said, and that hasn’t happened yet.”

Cindy LeBlanc, a Bridgton school board director, disagreed with McMahon, noting that Superintendent Smith did indeed clarify remarks made regarding Sebago Elementary and possible school closure. She strongly reiterated there is no move to close Sebago Elementary.

Leslie McAllister of Bridgton earlier noted that in conversations with people in her town, she found that if the school board ever presented a proposal to close Sebago Elementary, they would vote against such a measure, understanding the importance of educating young children in their own hometowns.

“We would fight to keep your small school open,” she said. “I don’t think you’re alone. The other three towns wouldn’t abandon you.”

After over three hours of discussion, moderator Penn Worcester put the finishing touches on the hearing saying he appreciated how people shared ideas and spoke respectfully.

“You couldn’t ask for a better night,” he said.

Now, it is up to voters to decide on April 12.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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