$30M school project passes despite divided views

Tue, 04/30/2024 - 11:30am

Residents approved a $30 million project to renovate Boothbay Region Elementary School (BRES) April 24 after months of discussion and debate. Now, school board members and administrators say work will begin to do the project that passed by 52 votes.

The referendum was approved by an aggregate vote of 859-807 with Boothbay voting 510 yes to 494 no, and Boothbay Harbor voting 349 yes to 313 no, according to town clerks. The vote drew just under 40% of the 4,200 registered voters in Boothbay Harbor and Boothbay, according to state data.  

Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 Superintendent Robert Kahler said it was a generational decision for the communities and thought the turnout was high for an off-year election. “Of course, it would have been great to have a wider margin, but it just sort of shows kind of where people are right now,” he said.  

Not everyone saw the results in the same light. Patty Minerich, who campaigned alongside others for a no vote, and for more discussion and more options at the polls, said the previous referendum expressed voters’ will. In November, 58% of Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor registered voters participated in a referendum that rejected a $29 million question to renovate the elementary-middle school building, 1266 to 1162 (Corrected statement from previous posting). 

“These results were ignored by our elected officials,” she said. “I believe elected officials are obligated to follow a code of conduct/ethics and Maine law. First Amendment rights matter and our community deserves better.” 

According to Kahler, there are legal mechanisms that allow a referendum to be reconsidered. However, he said they have not been enacted to his knowledge and there is a seven-day window to do so, which closes May 1. The Register asked some organizers of the “vote no” campaign if their affiliate groups were going to take action after the referendum passed. They did not respond to the question. 

Kahler said the Board of Trustees plans to meet soon to certify the vote and move forward with plans to begin construction and bonding, which taxpayers would begin to pay for in 2027. 

Trustees Chair Steve Lorrain said he was surprised, but glad, when he heard the vote passed. He said after the first vote he debated whether trustees should hold off on a second referendum. However, he said the urgency of repairs demanded action and costs will escalate regardless.  

“I know everybody's taxes are going to go up. They're going to go up no matter what we do,” he said. “Let's just make (the school) safe and dry. And, you know, I thought that's what trustees were there for. I felt like we were just doing our job more than anything else. Well, it sounds like the voters agree now.” 

Exact construction and bonding details are yet to be decided. However, according to administrators, the district generally plans to start major construction with a new maintenance building to allow space for equipment and exterior repairs to prevent further weather damage. In addition, they said the new middle school wing will be an early project goal that provides space during construction, avoiding the need for portable classrooms. 

Kahler and BRES Principal Shawna Kurr said the process should be minimally disruptive. Kurr said the school can plan disruptions months out, doing the heaviest work during breaks and vacations and allowing teachers to plan accordingly. Kahler and Kurr expect the project to have significantly less impact than the flood that displaced students across the peninsula; in addition, teachers can build from that experience, and may be asked to implement remote learning.

“There's going to be lots of fascination in the construction equipment and everything that goes by,” Kahler said. “But I don't see anything being more disruptive than what we went through last year with the flood. Teachers handled it like the pros that they are, frankly, as did the kids.” 

Overall, Kurr said she and the teachers are thankful to the community for its support. Like Lorrain, she said her first reaction was disbelief, quickly followed by excitement. She said she especially appreciates the approval because it’s a hard time for many households. “I know that there are people out there who really support this school redesign, and they might have made a no vote just simply because they can't take anymore, financially,” she said. “They just can't no matter how supportive they are of the school. And so, it's a really big ask that we're asking.” 

Kahler said he thinks the project will gain more support over time. He said people had more time to review the facts after the November vote, and it helped them make up their minds. He said he heard more detailed questions and a better-informed public in the April referendum. Now Kahler hopes the community will bring that level of commitment to the project as it moves ahead.  

“I know there are a lot of strong feelings on sort of both sides,” Kahler said. “But the benefit to our kids in the communities, it's just so exciting to think about. It's going to certainly far outlast me and others. So just a thank you to everyone. And hopefully, people will come together. And that's really what it's going to take ...”