July 13, 2020

School repairs lack state funds > Draft study seeks system changes

Searsport High School is so run-down and out-of-date it recently lost its accreditation. In an attempt to rectify the situation, parents set up volunteer tollbooths last month on Route 1 and held other fund-raisers that brought in about $3,000, a tiny fraction of the millions of dollars needed to repair and upgrade the one-story wooden high school.

Down the road, high school classes are held in a former bathroom, a boiler room and a converted bus barn at overcrowded Camden-Rockport High School. In Corinna, in central Maine, junior high school pupils attend classes in a 150-year-old rickety wooden building that doesn’t have a cafeteria or a gym.

In Washington County, parents attending a school board meeting last year dodged buckets catching the water pouring through the leaky roof at Calais Middle School.

Throughout the state, many pupils sit in overcrowded classrooms, take tests in portable trailers and breathe foul air. Many schools do not meet fire or safety codes and don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, say officials.

The state’s complex school construction program does little to alleviate such widespread problems. Districts that apply for state money to build new schools often wait a decade or more to see their requests granted. There is no state funding available to help pay for maintenance, repairs or renovations.

Sweeping changes may be on the horizon, however, if lawmakers heed the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on School Facilities, a group tapped by Gov. Angus King to study school construction problems.

In a draft report, the commission suggests that state money be made available for school renovations and repairs, not just new construction or additions. The group also recommends that a new set of criteria be developed to determine which towns get new or refurbished schools, and that financing of school projects be streamlined. A final report is due to the governor Feb. 1.

High stakes

The stakes are high in the school construction game. For eight years, Searsport education officials applied to the state for money to fix up their small, outdated high school, and for eight years, the request languished on a long list of other proposals.

Then, in September, Searsport High School had its accreditation yanked by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a private agency located in Massachusetts that gives its stamp of approval to educational institutions.

Searsport High School is the only school in Maine to have lost its accreditation in recent memory, said Pamela Gray-Bennett, the NEASC official who handled the case. “It certainly is not common” for schools to lose accreditation, she said.

Sometimes colleges and the military won’t accept students from nonaccredited schools, says Gray-Bennett, although a telephone poll of about 100 colleges and universities conducted by Searsport High personnel found only one school that had concerns about the loss of accreditation.

“The facility … was the major factor,” Gray-Bennett said of her agency’s decision to pull Searsport’s accreditation.

She said the building, which lacks adequate space for art and music programs and has aged science laboratores, had a negative impact on learning. To correct the problems, Gray-Bennett said, the district must renovate and add to the school.

What was most troubling to NEASC was that Searsport was informed of these problems in 1991, yet nothing was done to correct them. In the meantime, the community built a new elementary school.

“It wasn’t necessary,” Gray-Bennett said. “These problems could have been solved by the community, but it chose not to.”

Last spring, area residents defeated a $4.6 million bond issue to raise money for the school repairs.

“We were caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Principal Darrell Gilman. Without being able to raise money from the already highly taxed community and with no money forthcoming from the state, repairs and renovations to the high school remained on hold.

After the bond issue was defeated, the SAD 56 school board put $200,000 into a maintenance budget to replace the school’s windows, refurbish the chemistry lab and repair the roof.

That helped, Gilman said, but without a lot more money, major renovations such as a new library and cafeteria aren’t on the horizon.

The nearby communities of Camden and Rockport took a different approach to solving their school building problems. Rather than waiting years for state money to build a new high school, the two communities banded together with Lincolnville, Hope and Appleton to get state law changed so they could borrow the money upfront and be reimbursed by the state later.

Supporters of the community school district worked for years to get financial and moral support. The Friends of CSD has committed to raising more than $5 million in private funds to start construction. To date, the group has raised $3 million, including $1 million from local employer MBNA.

Ground will be broken later this year on a new $21 million high school that is slated to open in 2000, before the project would have made it to the top of the state board’s construction approval list.

In addition to helping the community get a new school sooner, rushing the project will save the state about $3 million in inflationary costs, said Jim Rier, chairman of the governor’s commission and the state board of education.

How things got so bad

In 1987, the state board of education approved construction projects at nearly 40 schools. Last year, only four new construction projects were approved.

A temporary hold was placed on school construction applications because the state was running out of money for such endeavors. By law, the state board of education, which must approve all state-funded construction projects, can make debt service payments of up to $67 million a year to pay for such projects. Because new high schools are running in the neighborhood of $20 million each, the board was bumping up against that debt ceiling and could fund only a couple of new construction projects plus an addition or two.

This means some school districts now are waiting up to a decade for approval and funding of construction projects.

“School administrative units with deteriorating, but repairable, structures must either wait for years to receive new construction funding, or make the necessary repairs solely from local tax dollars. Strained school administrative unit budgets usually prohibit such expenditures,” the commission said in its draft report.

Rier said the construction problem was exacerbated by cuts in school funding that began in 1990. Faced with a tight budget and the choice between firing teachers or fixing leaking roofs, school officials chose to keep the teachers, hoping the condition of the buildings wouldn’t become worse.

“We have the choice of educating kids or maintaining buildings,” said William Braun, superintendent in SAD 48 in the Newport area.

It takes Braun several minutes to list the needed repairs at his district’s nine schools. At Newport Elementary School, for example, 10 portable trailers are used to house the school’s overflow pupil population. There is only one electrical outlet per classroom, making computer or other electronic hookups difficult. The gym doubles as a cafeteria, the bathrooms are not handicapped-accessible, and the roof leaks.

Then, there’s Corinna Junior High School, a wooden structure built in 1853.

“I wouldn’t give you three seconds in it if it caught fire,” Braun said. The school has no cafeteria or gymnasium. A new junior high is now on the state board’s “approved list,” but because of delays in funding, the school likely won’t be built until 2005, Braun said.

Four years ago, district residents passed a $250,000 bond issue to pay for some repairs. That helped, but much work remains to be done.

SAD 48 is not alone. The decision statewide to focus on education at the expense of school repairs has resulted in a staggering list of deferred maintenance needs. An inventory conducted by the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of Maine identified more than $60 million in health, safety and legal compliance repairs and improvements urgently needed in the state’s schools.

The center also identified more than $500 million worth of construction and renovation projects.

These numbers got the attention of Gov. King. Why, he wondered aloud at an April fisherman’s forum in Rockport, were students eagerly shelling out $27,000 a year to study in Bowdoin College’s 200-year-old buildings while the town of Brunswick closed its 60-year-old high school in favor of an $18 million building on the outskirts of town?

Citing the “historical lack of a comprehensive statewide strategy for public investment in both new construction and renovation of existing school facilities,” as well as the fact that “many Maine communities are struggling with overcrowded school buildings, obsolete or inadequate facilities,” King created the school facilities commission this summer. The group was charged by executive order with taking “immediate and decisive action” to make “the most efficient use of available school construction funds.”

The commission met twice a month, sought the advice of numerous construction, finance and education officials and held three public hearings before developing its recommendations.

Build or renovate?

The biggest change that the group recommends is that the state fund renovation projects, not just new school buildings or additions.

The idea is that money could be better spent to make repairs or improvements to existing structures, thereby extending their lives, rather than building new schools.

This would save money while allowing the most urgent new construction projects to move through the system faster.

“Under the old system, without any funds available for renovation, it became a very quick analysis. … It was a very easy answer, build new because there was no money available any other way,” Rier said.

He said he believes the change will allow the state board of education to better direct money to the most needy projects.

Gilman, principal of Searsport High School, agrees such a change is needed.

“We don’t need a new building. … It’s not practical for us to build a new building,” he said. “The most practical and efficient way to deal with this situation is by renovation.”

He said it was troubling that his school waited unsuccessfully for eight years for $3 million to $4 million to fix up the building while Berwick got funding for a new $33 million high school, the most expensive high school ever built in Maine.

To fund renovations, the commission recommends that a revolving loan fund be established with $30 million in seed money from the state. That money could come from the state budget surplus, the commission said.

A statewide poll taken last fall found a lot of public support for this idea. Forty-one percent of people surveyed in October said the then $28 million state budget surplus should be used to improve and fix schools. Twenty-two percent said the money should be used to provide tax relief and only 10 percent said the money should be put into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

In addition to the $30 million appropriation, the commission recommends that two bond issues, totaling $70 million, be put forward to raise money for the renovation fund.

In addition to putting more money into the pot, the Maine commission recommends that the current ratings system be revamped to make the process more fair and efficient.

Under the current system, a school gets extra points in the ratings system if it shows that the community will make significant use of the school facilities. Rier said the ratings system should focus instead primarily on health and safety issues and overcrowding.

He said the requirement that a school add at least 8,000 square feet to its building to qualify for state funds should be removed from the system.

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