Public engagement rises as CSD school vote nears

Fri, 10/27/2023 - 9:45pm

    Frank Fassett came to a public hearing Oct. 25 with a question he knew the answer to: What is the total debt service of the school district’s multimillion-dollar construction projects? Not wanting to risk giving the wrong numbers, Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) 98 Superintendent Robert Kahler did not have an immediate answer.  

    “Truth in lending, that is huge,” Fassett said. “... I'm a little concerned that you don’t know that for either one of them.”

    The $89 million school bond referendum is less than two weeks away for Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor, and many taxpayers still have questions. Several dozen residents attended two hearings from the Community School District (CSD) Oct. 25 in Boothbay Harbor and Oct. 26 in Boothbay.  

    Later in the meeting, Kahler answered Fassett after confirming the numbers. He said the debt service would be around $135 million for the total project and around $44 million for the middle-elementary school renovations. Fassett admitted he did the calculations himself, but wanted to hear the numbers from an official. Despite the tension, Kahler remained optimistic about the process.  

    “I think with some of the questions and even some of the things online, it's clear that people are becoming more engaged, which is good,” Kahler said after the meeting. 

    Fassett and other residents asked about the scope of the project and needs of the school district. However, questions largely revolved around cost and value. 

    “I'm not saying it's worth it. I'm not saying it's not worth it. I don't mind paying for something, but I just want to make sure it's the smartest way to do it,” Fassett said. "I just had to get those questions answered so that I can make an informed decision for myself.” 

    Other common questions between the two meetings regarded student enrollment. Officials said there are around 500 students in the district, and the new schools could accommodate up to around 800. Some residents questioned if the district would have that many. Kahler said student populations have been above predictions, which show slight declines in younger age groups and a slight increase in older ones.  

    Another common question was around the trustees’ recommendations. As reported in the Register, the board recommended approving Question 1 to fund the elementary-middle renovations. However, they declined to take a stance on Question 2 to fund a new high school. Residents at both hearings asked why.  

    Trustee Darrell Gudroe said he was comfortable with a yes recommendation for Question 1 because the building needs repairs and there is not a choice. “With the high school, we’re going to get to a point where we don’t have a choice, but we do, as voters, all have a choice as to whether we want to repair or have a new high school,” he said.  

    Trustee chair Steve Lorrain said the board could not come to a consensus on Question 2, especially with questions around regionalization and fundraising still in the air.  

    Kahler also addressed fundraising. He said, apart from the initial $2.5 million in donations to research the project in 2021, the district has not asked for donations. Kahler explained it would have been hard to ask before the questions had been finalized, which had happened in September, and taxpayers voiced their commitment. However, he said the district is working behind the scenes to assemble a fundraising team for a four-to-five-year capital campaign.  

    The two recent hearings are required by law before a referendum vote. However, the CSD has hosted several other public events. These include in-person and online informational sessions as well as two showings of a filmed tour of the high school with a question-and-answer forum.  

    The recent meetings have been in addition to regular school board, trustees and building exploratory committee meetings that have discussed the project for more than two years. According to Lorrain, public participation at around 46 meetings during the whole process has been relatively low. However, Kahler said he has seen increased engagement as the vote draws nearer, with a high watermark of around 80 people who attended the film viewing this October. 

    “There were not huge crowds, but I think that's primarily because the information's been out there in a lot of forums and (we talked to) a lot of people already,” Kahler said. “So, I feel like the community's been informed, and I'm looking forward to getting the feedback.” 

    Some of that feedback was less than positive. Some taxpayers expressed concern about the fiscal responsibility of such a large project, others simply said they would not be voting yes. However, despite concerns, many residents expressed gratitude to officials and board members for their work on the project. Fassett, for one, said he knew they had been working on it for years and he has a lot of trust in them.  

    “You’ve done a great job,” Fassett said to school officials. "Whether we agree or don’t agree, we’ve been together a long time and I think we can do it without being disagreeable. I feel great with you guys.”