Public gives thoughts about Songo Locks, Crooked River Schools, and their futures
By Dawn De Busk
NAPLES — It does not all come down to dollars and cents.
Yet, people want to know how much it will cost. That cost will impact property taxes.
Twice, voters in four towns rejected funding a construction project that would have renovated an existing school to counter overcrowding in another.
First a $9.6 million plan was voted down in December 2015. A second proposal with a $7.8 million price tag also got the axe at the polls in April 2016.
For the voters, does it come down only to dollars and cents? And, how could that be the case? After all, it is so much more than money and taxes.
The issue at hand is an elementary school, where children and teachers still take pride and accomplish academic goals despite cramped quarters or being outside of the school in the portable classrooms all day.
The renovation of the Crooked River School (CRS) to alleviate the overcrowding at Songo Locks School (SLS) is a topic that brings to the surface emotions, passion and frustration for many people in the community.
On Jan. 25, members of the School Administrative District (SAD) 61 Board of Directors sought input from the community on how to present the plan again to voters.
The public forum was held in the SLS cafeteria, which has more than a dozen round tables, seating between eight and ten people. Other chairs set in rows along the wall were filled; while some people opted to stand. Around 125 people attended the public forum, and probably one-third or more of those in attendance spoke. SAD 61 Board Chair Janice Barter led the informal discussion, asking questions and responding to people’s comments.
“This is kind of informal,” Barter said.
“We need you to be honest, truly honest. Tell us why you didn’t vote for the project. We need Casco and Naples to come out to vote,” she said, asking the people present how best to make that happen.
SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith asked the audience if he should have provided more numbers — not just the cost of the project, but also the cost of old debt still being paid off and what year those loans will be retired. Another set of numbers is the cost of leasing the portables; the school owns one portable, which will require the additional cost of roof repair, Smith said.
“How do we educate people on the costs? Last time, I didn’t hit the financial aspect of it. I focused on the students and the schools,” he said.
During the meeting, some people asked for more information while others struggled with the best way to get voters’ blessing on the next proposed construction plan.
It was suggested that as far as getting the word out and gaining support for the project, a door-to-door campaign would be most impactful. Another female audience member said, “We need to get businesses on board. We need to get the selectmen on board. We need people who are influential in our community on our side. Even if you don’t have a child in this school, this is important to our community.”
Someone asked about a timeline for the proposed construction.
According to Smith, if the funding is approved, it could be another two years before the retrofitting at Crooked River School (CRS) is complete and the building is ready for a new student body.
Sebago resident Annette Thomas said that all the towns in the district voted down the budget for this project. It was not only voters in Sebago, which is in the process of withdrawing from the regional school district, but also voters in Bridgton, Casco and Naples that nixed the construction plan, she said.
“To me, to think children have to endure another two years of overcrowding, I feel badly for the school staff and the kids,” Thomas said. She added that she would give her own money “if it could happen sooner, and happen as a renovation.”
“I want to give a hand for the teachers who made a less desirable spot a better space,” Thomas said.
Earlier in the meeting, Casco resident Grant Plummer asked for the opinions of the teaching staff.
“Is the staff able to speak on how” things are going? “I’ve sat in on countless board meetings, looking down the aisle, and wondering” if they can talk without concern for their employment, Plummer said.
“This school is worse today than last year. I have a student out in the portables. She doesn’t feel like a student in the school,” he said.
“We should stop dead in our tracks, and say don’t do anything until this problem is solved,” Plummer said. By not doing anything, he meant not spending money on other district projects while students at Songo Locks School pay the price in a school that is over capacity by 100 students.
One special education teacher who shared her name with the group said that the portable classrooms are “nice and quiet,” which is a plus for some students. “But, I feel cutoff,” she said.
“We are reaching a special education teacher crisis. We have vacancies that we cannot fill. There aren’t enough teachers,” she said.
“I am the most experienced (special education instructor at SLS),” she said. “We have new staff. They don’t have mentors. They are in the building. I am in a portable. I cannot meet regularly with them. I cannot answer questions on the fly.”
Two fifth grade teachers, Holly Tremblay and Betsy Mayo described how the portable classrooms were transformed into Fifth Avenue, a place where students wanted to be.
Bridgton resident Allyssa Macintyre expressed the need for backing from parents of children in all school, not just from the parents with students attending the school in need of more space.
“This is something we need to do for our children. I don’t have children in school in this town. We live in Bridgton,” she said.
“Our children deserve better. They deserve more than a Band Aid. They deserve a 30-year fix,” Macintyre said.
Plummer shared his thoughts, saying, “I think education is the key for the board, do some homework, get a clear plan for what our education (costs) will look like. That plan includes projects in Bridgton, Sebago, others as well,” he said.
“This project is a 9-1-1-er. Make sure any work that is happening is happening (to help) this facility,” he said. “By the time this is over, we will be talking about over-crowding at Steven Brooks.”
Someone interjected that Steven Brooks Elementary is already reaching the point of more students enrolled than the building was designed for.
“I see a $20 million problem if we don’t do something now,” Plummer continued.
Naples resident Doug Bogdan had spoken earlier in the discussion, saying he voted against the project and offered some reasons why. Bogdan said it was his fiscal responsibility to vote wisely on costly construction. He felt misled by promises regarding the high school theater and other school construction projects. This time, he addressed what the board could do to garner support of the school project.
“Get the right information out to the people, fair information, not only what you want to get this voted in,” Bogdan said.
Kevin Murphy also had talked earlier, saying he started Lake Region Youth First. He had asked people what was the best means of communicating with the public.
“What will we say ‘yes’ to? I don’t have a horse in this fight anymore. I have a kid in middle school and a kid in high school,” Murphy said. “There is fundamental right to education of children, no matter what town.”
“We have said ‘no’ as a community twice, what will we say ‘yes’ to,” Murphy asked the crowd.