Close it, fix it, build a new one. The three choices showed yet again at the Jan. 16 Boothbay-Boothbay Harbor CSD Board of Trustees meeting as the stewards of the two school buildings were poised to vote on seeking a $5 million bond for heating and ventilation upgrades.
Chair Richard Hallinan opened with the July 2018 Honeywell report detailing over $4 million in HVAC upgrades the board outlined as high priority.
“Old, inefficient,” Hallinan said describing the 42-year-old boilers at Boothbay Region Elementary School. “Two hundred forty five gallons a day – that's what we burned last week. Some of the rooms can't get above 68 degrees. Optimum temperature for students is 72.”
Hallinan reiterated there will be no significant increase to the school budget due to the bond because the budget already has repayments figured into it for loans that time out when payments for the proposed bond would start in 2021. With no site visits from the public and minimal participation in public meetings since the report was released, Hallinan said the board is trying to get on with the project.
Time for a plan
Trustees urged expediency to make the Maine Municipal Bond Bank’s application deadline of mid-February before interest rates and construction costs increase, but selectmen from Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor urged caution and further research.
Boothbay Selectman Dale Harmon cited statistics from the superintendent's office. He said a 53 percent decrease in enrollment by 2023 will leave both schools with only 352 students, and costs of about $30,000 per pupil. Maine’s average is $11,500.
With a roughly $10 million budget and no guidance to manage declining enrollment, Harmon said he could not support any plans to spend a significant amount of money until a clear plan is drawn up to deal with future enrollment and spending issues.
Harmon recommended deferring the bond and creating a committee with members from both towns, trustees, school committee members, and teachers from both buildings. Ideally the committee would report back with recommendations within 90 days on how to control current and future costs; then the trustees could consider taking out $5 million.
Boothbay Harbor Selectmen’s Chair Wendy Wolf said she could not agree more with Harmon. Wolf pointed out to the trustees that the last meeting involving all the boards brought discussion of several options.
“I don't think you all as a board and as a superintendent have done due diligence to really engage the public in this very important decision tonight,” said Wolf. “If you look at the attendance tonight to talk about a $5 million bond which exceeds some of the town budgets, I would say the public input is frankly pathetic … I think you all have failed to really both engage and inform the public that they need to weigh in and either provide support or suggestions on how you make an informed decision.”
CSD School Committee member Bruce MacDonald said he believes the projects should not wait. He disagreed with Wolf's point that the trustees have not gathered public input. With both the trustees and school committee having discussed the issues at length over the past several months, MacDonald said very few people from the public have showed up to express concern or support.
Limited options a matter of opinion
The issue is black and white to trustee vice chair Steve Lorrain – fix them or close them, he said. “We don't have any other options.”
With several rooms in BRES struggling to stay above 68 degrees – and one room steadily hovering around 60 degrees – Lorrain said continuing debate on how the problem is resolved without immediate action diminishes its importance.
Wolf said if school populations continue to fall and costs continue to go up, the best way to save money is to eliminate infrastructure. If that is truly an option, she would like to see the trustees investigate that, she said.
“So, yes, I'll make a proposal. I think it would be worthwhile to do a detailed analysis of what it would take to consolidate the student body into one school … I think that would generate more public input and excitement than trying to get people to come and talk about replacing the HVAC system.”
Above and beyond
The selectmen were unanimously concerned that the bond process would not come before voters as budget season steadily approaches. Laser said the CSD’s attorney said to stay the course and not call a referendum. If the public can provide 100 signatures from each town, plus 100 at large for a total of 300 signatures, that would automatically kick the bond issue into a referendum.
“He said don't … skip any of the steps because that's how you get (legally) challenged,” Laser said. “We are following the charter to a T under the advice of legal counsel, without skipping any of the steps on how we go through.”
Boothbay Harbor Selectman Denise Griffin said it is an action of good faith to bring a referendum to the voters even if it is not required. Going above and beyond what is required often delivers trust and support from the community, said Griffin.
Resident Tom Minerich said his concern about seeking out such a large sum of money is there have been no measures to confirm the scope of work set forth by Honeywell is necessary. Results will likely be about just the same as everyone expects, but discretion is important when considering such a large sum, he said.
Said Minerich, “This way you're not having the fox running the hen house … By having a second opinion, we know things will get done properly and then we can all get behind it.”
Wolf said if the trustees feel the second opinion from a third party engineer is necessary, but the only thing standing in the CSD's way is money, the next step for the trustees would be to draw up a scope of work, flesh out a budget and present it to the boards of selectmen to lobby for funds.
MacDonald protested that while Wolf likely means well, her suggestion oversteps the important and historic bounds between municipalities and schools.
“These suggestions sound good, but they fly in the face of a couple hundred years of American municipal law which says that schools are run by school committees … You do not want to have the selectmen involved in your school business. They're not involved and they're not involved for good reason because schools have become political footballs... It's completely dismaying to me as someone who believes in our towns and our schools that you've got two boards, here, who are fighting you on this.”
MacDonald said there is likely rational discussion to be had about whether or not the trustees and superintendent's office have done everything they can to find alternative funding, but he would suggest the trustees have a special meeting appealing directly to the public for funds.
Resident John O'Connell echoed a concern which came up with several people on the constraints of sticking with the Maine Municipal Bond Bank and the mid-February deadline for an application.
“We've heard $10 million, we've heard five, we've heard 35. We've heard one building, two building, new building … The fact is we now seem to be in a crunch with the $5 million and the summer. If we weren't stuck with the Maine Bond Bank and that deadline … Is (that) the only way of doing it? If you had another month or two, I think a lot of this confusion and agitation would probably go away.”
Laser said he would reach out to banks for estimates, though he had already inquired about lease purchase agreements which proved to have much higher interest rates than the bond.
Bond issue tabled
With municipal officials from both towns suggesting the trustees delay a vote on procuring the bond, trustees became hesitant. Hallinan said he does not want the municipal governments or the voters to feel the board is trying to ram anything through. Trustee Kevin Anthony said he supports Minerich's idea to go with a second opinion, though he is certain it will not change anything in scope or cost.
Said Anthony, “… If it's going to make some people happy, let's do it. I think it does not help the people of this community because next year the interest rate's going to be higher, the costs are going to be greater, it's going to be a bigger bond for the same work done. In the meantime people better go to church and just pray that heating system up there doesn't go belly up in the middle of winter. We're trying to do the best thing for the kids.”
Silence fell as Hallinan asked if there would be a motion to move forward with procuring $5 million. With no one speaking up, Hallinan entertained a motion to table the vote and seek a second opinion on Honeywell's report and the cost and scope of work the trustees are seeking for BRES HVAC upgrades. The vote was unanimously in favor.