Crooked River project pitched as ‘budget neutral’

Naples’ take on Crooked River school
School exterior looks good, interior doesn’t pass code
By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer
NAPLES — It is a lesson containing the message: A person cannot judge a book by its cover.
The brick building that is the Crooked River School (CRS) looks good to the people who drive by it along Route 11. In fact, the school looks like it is in good enough shape to move in students and reduce the overcrowding at the Songo Locks School (SLS).
At least that is what taxpayers say, according to Naples selectman Jim Turpin.
“I believe in this project. The teachers and the students have been in overcrowded conditions at Songo Locks School,” he said, adding that he voted in favor of the previous renovation projects that were voted down at the polls.
“The biggest bottleneck is selling it to the voters. People drive by the building and it looks useful. Can we not spend $1 million and improve as we go along — at least that is what residents are saying to me,” Turpin said.
On Monday, the Naples Board of Selectmen heard a presentation on the proposed $8 million CRS additions and renovations.
Janice Barter, a member of the School Administrative District (SAD) 61 Board of Directors stepped up to the podium to explain the project in Naples. That same presentation came before the Bridgton and Casco selectmen the following evening, on Tuesday.
In the future, to give voters a firsthand view, there will be an open house at the CRS. The open house is slated for Thursday, Jan. 24, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
The proposed project to enlarge and repurpose the CRS has an estimated price tag of $8 million, according to SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith. (A previous proposal, which was not approved by voters, was closer to $10 million.)
A vital component of this new project — something that might sell it to voters — is that it is budget neutral. The project will not raise taxes because 1) the district will retire its debt payments from previous construction projects; and 2) there will be an annual savings from no longer leasing the portables.
Both Smith and Barter explained that the district is facing a crunch. First, SLS is overcrowded with half of the students in portables. Secondly, the Maine Department of Education will in the next few years require public schools to offer Pre-kindergarten classes.
In answering Turpin’s question about fast-tracking and reducing the cost of the move into the Crooked River School (CRS), Smith said that the school building is not up to code.
“We had an opportunity to gain revenue by renting part of it to Head Start. They did a walk-through and brought in the fire marshal. It didn’t pass code. They couldn’t come into the building,” he said.
“The building has round classrooms. The building itself is only half the size we need,” he said.
The size of the individual classrooms does not pass state requirements. The state mandates that classrooms are 800 sq. ft., and CRS has rooms that are about 500 sq. ft., Smith said. He later added that there is no grandfather clause for buildings used for public education.
The proposed project would add 10 classrooms to the CRS. The fourth and fifth grade classrooms would be located on the upper floor, and the third graders would be housed on a lower floor of the school building. A detail from previous proposals, the school renovations will include a stage.
Turpin’s comment on the excellent exterior condition of the CRS building is not an uncommon viewpoint, according to school district officials.
School board member Barter said, “One thing that I have heard people who visit our schools say our schools look great. We take care of our schools.”
Smith, too, agreed, saying that one of the reasons he accepted the SAD 61 superintendent position was because the district maintains its buildings. Over the course of the discussion, Smith said most people are surprised that SLS is 26 years old. Similarly, one portable at SLS is approaching 10 years; and because the custodial and maintenance staff has done such a great job, the district was able to use it beyond its five-year lifespan, Smith said.
“The district has done a phenomenal job maintaining the buildings,” he said.
“You are right the building looks great,” Smith said, playing off Turpin’s comments. “It is brick and it will last as long as the heat is on.”
But, the interior is another story, he said.
“The interior is tired and worn. It is not great construction. Some of the walls are portable, like sliding partitions,” he said.
“How we can dramatize that I’m not sure,” Smith said.
The open house on Jan. 24 will give people an opportunity to tour the inside of CRS.
Smith did talk about how the improved and functional school building will add to the property values of the town. Having a good place for children to get an education will be one reason that families will continue to move to the Lake Region, he said.
Selectman Turpin was pretty much sold on the idea of investing in the school renovations.
“As a town and as a nation, the most important thing you can invest in is an education,” Turpin said.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Selling million-dollar projects can be difficult because taxpayers already feel stretched to the limit and bristle at the thought of paying more.

Al Smith has experienced this scenario numerous times in his 14 years as superintendent of schools.

The proposed Crooked River project is different. With SAD 61set to retire two existing debts — $204,000 yearly for the Lake Region Middle School renovation in 2019–20, and $336,000 for the Stevens Brook renovation in 2021 — and elimination of existing portables ($108,000), the cost of renovating and building additions to Crooked River School would be nearly a wash — or as school officials refer, “budget neutral.”

That was part of the message Bridgton’s School Board directors Karla Swanson-Murphy and Deb Albert told selectmen Tuesday night.

With Smith and Finance Director Sherrie Small in the audience, the two directors gave an overview of the project, identified existing problems occurring at Songo Locks School, and pointed out how SAD 61 could take on the $8,975,000 project without pushing taxpayers to ante up.

This is the school district’s third attempt at a Crooked River “redesign,” which would house Grades 3, 4 and 5 — thus alleviating overcrowding and future space issues at Songo Locks School.

“Half of the Songo Locks students are in tight, portable classrooms,” said Swanson-Murphy in her opening. “Doing nothing is no longer an option.”

Use of portable space costs SAD 61 over $100,000 per year, and units are eclipsing their expected lifespan.

There is also a safety concern. Grade 5 students are taught in a portable (referred to as “Fifth Avenue”) that is not connected to the main facility.

“While teachers do a great job creating a sense of home, the sense of community is reduced because these students are not in the main building. And, there are safety concerns (in cases of lockdown),” Swanson-Murphy noted. “Learning is tough in tight spaces.”

Because of spacing, the school runs five lunch periods, beginning at 11 a.m. and ending at 1:30 p.m. Dismissal begins at 3 p.m.

“Learning time is reduced because of transition time needed to accommodate tight quarters,” she added. “And, the more kids you have in the halls creates more behavioral problems.”

With project costs rising due to tariffs and labor, SAD 61 officials reworked the proposal, eliminating some items but maintaining class sizes. Swanson-Murphy likes the “pod” design for each grade level, which will be part of the addition. In place of an auditorium (and to save money), a bumpout off the existing gym would provide the school a stage area.

As for financing, SAD 61 would seek a 20-year bond. If $1,000,000 is taken from capital reserve to reduce the overall cost, taxpayers would be looking at about a $27 increase for each $100,000 in property valuation — or about $2 per month.

Thus, the projected cost would be $660,000 per year, beginning in 2021–22, once work is completed. SAD 61 erases $648,000 from its debt by that point.

“I don’t want to sugar coat it,” noted Swanson-Murphy that elimination of existing debt and not taking on the Crooked River project would result in a tax decrease. However, SAD 61 will still be faced with space issues, including where to put Pre-K and mandated special service programs.

One question posed at a Naples meeting was why can’t SAD 61 simply open Crooked River, as is, for elementary education since that was the purpose of the building when it was built.

“A couple of years ago, Headstart was looking for space, and seeing it as a chance for the district to gain some revenue, we looked into it,” Superintendent Smith said. “It (Crooked River) was evaluated and it didn’t pass code.”

Selectmen asked a few questions including where would SAD 61 place Special Services and Adult Ed, which currently use Crooked River, as well as what enrollment projections look like down the road and whether expansion will be needed at other schools?

The “White House” at the high school would house special services, while adult ed courses would be taught in the high school.

“We are growing to a point that we will look at the middle school. The high school has capacity, but that renovation project has not been completed,” Smith added. “In 10 to 15 years, we will need to look at them.”

Smith believes a Crooked River redesign and addition would address the district’s needs for the next 30 to 40 years versus if SAD 61 stands pat, a band-aid approach will not solve all problems.

Residents will decide whether to move on the proposal at a referendum vote set for March 12. School officials plan to meet with area groups and organizations, and informational sessions have been scheduled (see sidebar).

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