District hopes second time’s a charm for Crooked River project

CHOKE POINT — All traffic coming and going to the playground at Songo Locks School must flow through a single-wide doorway, which becomes a choke point during recess transitions.

CHOKE POINT — All traffic coming and going to the playground at Songo Locks School must flow through a single-wide doorway, which becomes a choke point during recess transitions.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

At first blush, $7.8 million sounds like a lot of money to spend on renovating and expanding the Crooked River School in Casco. And to many, it is.

But if you consider that 17 years ago, $7.3 million was spent to build Stevens Brook Elementary School, $7.8 million “is sort of a bargain,” Kevin Murphy told Bridgton Selectmen at their March 8 meeting. The $7.8 million price tag has been shaved by 20 percent from the $9.6 million proposal that voters resoundingly rejected by nearly a 3-to-1 margin in December. The scaled-back project, sans a 150-seat auditorium, wood boiler and smaller library, music room and kitchen, will only increase tax bills in the SAD 61 School District by an average of $4 a month, or 13 cents a day, he said.

“Making schools useful costs money,” said Murphy. Repurposing the Crooked River School on Route 11 as a Grade 3-5 school will not only relieve the serious overcrowding at Songo Locks School, he said, with portable classrooms that soon need to close, but it will provide a “real school culture” where students can learn and grow together in a stable educational environment. Each grade will have its own space, parking in the back will be doubled, and the playground will be redone with new equipment.

Murphy is the husband of SAD 61 School Board member Karla Swanson-Murphy, and has volunteered his background in marketing and communications to help explain why the district is putting the project back out for a second vote at a lower price. He was joined in his talk by SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith.

LUNCH IN SHIFTS at Songo Locks School includes five lunch periods from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunches and recess dictate the schedule. During winter, many students attend lunch in their snow gear because lunch runs into recess. (Photos by Kevin Muphy)

LUNCH IN SHIFTS at Songo Locks School includes five lunch periods from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Lunches and recess dictate the schedule. During winter, many students attend lunch in their snow gear because lunch runs into recess. (Photos by Kevin Muphy)

A secret ballot referendum vote on the project will take place the following Tuesday, April 12 in the four district towns of Bridgton, Sebago, Casco and Naples.

Murphy said overcrowding at the Grade 3-5 Songo Locks School in Naples — built for 380 students yet housing 480 — is so severe that pickup and drop-off of students by parents has become a long waiting game at best, a traffic safety hazard at worst.

Both men will appear later this month before Casco Selectmen, who voted Tuesday to formally endorse the Crooked River project with a statement of support on the Town Hall’s message board and a possible townwide mailing.

Bridgton Selectmen made several comments and asked a few questions, but were noncommittal on whether the scaled-back project met with their approval. Bridgton residents voted 537 to 181 to reject the $9.6 million project in December; Casco residents supported it, but only by a two-vote margin of 188-186.

One chief concern was raised by Selectman Chairman Bernie King. He said that many people have asked him to find out how much more Bridgton taxpayers would have to pay if the town of Sebago votes to withdraw from the school district.

Supt. Smith acknowledged that “there could be a small adjustment” upwards for the remaining three towns if Sebago votes to withdraw, but he didn’t specify how much that might be. Smith noted that the withdrawal process, if approved, would take a year and a half to two years to complete. A formal proposal must be submitted within 90 days to the school board, who in turn would then draw up a counter-proposal.

“It could affect the project financially,” Smith said. Sebago pays for 10 percent of the school budget. “I’m hoping it doesn’t take place, obviously,” he added.

Murphy came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation he titled “A (Crowded) Day In The Life” of Songo Locks School, which graphically illustrated the overcrowding issues at the 25-year-old school. He showed photos of the cafeteria and hallways with students and staff packed to overflowing, and students holding reading and Title 1 classes in hallway closets and, in one case, the school’s trophy case space. Lunchtime is a particular crunch, starting at 11 a.m. and not ending until 1:30 p.m., with 27 homeroom classes divided into five lunch periods.

“Lunches and recess dictate the schedule for everything, rather than academics,” Murphy said.

When Murphy pointed out the disparity in the state’s school funding formula — towns like Falmouth and Yarmouth, with higher incomes, get more money while towns in the Lake Region, with higher valuation thanks to lakefront, get less — King just shook his head.

TIGHT QUARTERS — Staff attempted to make this space as comfortable as possible with small camp chairs and foam padding for the floor. When all students are present, the space is undeniably crowded and not conducive to most activities.

TIGHT QUARTERS — Staff attempted to make this space as comfortable as possible with small camp chairs and foam padding for the floor. When all students are present, the space is undeniably crowded and not conducive to most activities.

“That just makes no sense,” King said. Murphy said the state’s school building fund has gone lower and lower in recent years, which means that SAD 61 isn’t the only district having to face new school construction costs without state help.

“Everyone else is spending more,” said Murphy, even if some state aid is given. In SAD 61’s case, there is no state aid available for school construction.

Selectman Bob McHatton asked whether the $7.8 million estimate represented “the minimum” amount needed for the project.

“Truly, I think it is,” Smith answered. He noted that the architects “have put in enormous amounts of time, gratis,” working on a redesign that best balances costs with long-term needs of the district. “You don’t know how many times we’ve reworked the building scheme,” Smith said. Asked by Selectmen Paul Hoyt about the need for a $370,000 contingency, Smith said the figure was conservative and that whatever funds aren’t needed would be used to reduce project costs.

“This (project) is as much for the kids there now as it is for their own kids,” decades from now, he said. “We’ve designed a building that will last 30 to 40 years, and it’s an economic opportunity.”

 

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