ROCKLAND — A last-minute change in state funding for a proposed addition to the South School could endanger project approval by local voters, SAD 5 board members said Monday night. When the Department of Education decreased the budget by $500,000 last week, the local share, to be raised by taxpayers, increased to $1 million.
A tentative vote on the $1.5 million project was set for March 3, assuming preliminary approval by the Department of Education on Wednesday.
On Monday night, local voters approved the project in concept with a vote of 37-0, setting the stage for the March 3 vote at the polls.
Last week, Department of Education officials dropped the budget for the project from $2 million to $1.5 million. “They changed the rules on us,” said SAD 5 Superintendent Donald Kanicki who continues to fume about “inequities” in the state school funding system.
Kanicki told the school board Monday night that the towns of Berwick and South Berwick have obtained school funding of $88 million in recent years. “They never batted an eye at giving them $88 million and they changed the rules on us at the last minute. I asked the education department how they expected voters to feel,” Kanicki said.
Since 1995 the state department has approved 295 school construction projects, “but we have not received one penny. Where is the equity?” Kanicki asked.
Because the SAD 5 district was unable to gain state approval and funding for a $4.8 million middle school, the district had to raise the money totally from local taxpayers. That middle school is under construction adjacent to the South School.
When SAD 5 board member Tina Baker asked what the state had against the Rockland-based school district, Richard Levasseur, a school board member who has guided the middle school project to the construction phase, said, “We are building a 55,000-square-foot building for 400 students for $4.8 million. The state can’t do that for less than $8 million. I think we embarrassed them because they have been overspending for years.”
Levasseur admitted that the South School project will be a tough sell to beleaguered taxpayers in the district. “We have asked and asked and asked. They have given and given and given,” he said.
“There is no question that we need to do this project. We don’t have adequate facilities. Now the state is dictating how much they will contribute. This is an unbelievable process. It changed in two weeks by $500,000,” Levasseur said.
Architect Stephen Blatt of Portland said the school lacks a cafeteria, gymnasium and space for art, music education meeting room and library services.
The $1.6 million project would link the existing South School to the middle school under construction. The link would give the South School access to the middle school cooking facility.
The existing South School annex would be relocated on the grounds to improve the traffic flow of the school. A new area housing offices, a conference room and media center would be added at one end of the school. Most of the new construction would be for a combined auditorium and classroom wing.
“It will be a larger, better school for students and staff,” Blatt said.