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Presque Isle city councilors, community members weigh in on SAD 1 right-sizing referendum

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — During a special City Council meeting on Thursday night, SAD 1 officials presented their $15 million bond package to councilors, eliciting many comments, questions and concerns from both councilors and community members in attendance about its potential educational and economic impacts.

A little over a week had passed since the SAD 1 school board voted 15-2 to send through a proposal to voters on Nov. 6 that would turn the current middle school into a pre-K to 8 school. The plan calls for closing both Pine Street Elementary School, which educates pre-K to second grade students, and Zippel Elementary School, which educates grades three to five, and renovating the middle school to accommodate all students through eighth grade.

The bond package comes three years of discussions over “right-sizing” to reduce the district’s footprint of five school buildings in line with the current low student enrollment.

Assistant superintendent for business Clint Deschene explained to councilors that although the $15 million project would initially increase SAD 1’s tax commitment, the long-term cost savings would outweigh those expenses. Currently SAD 1 operates on 11.35 mills of local property taxes and, if the school layout remains the same, there would likely be an 8 percent increase in the mill rate to 12.3 in 16 years.

He stated that a new pre-K to 8 school is estimated to decrease the mill rate by as much as 20 percent, to between 9.7 and 10.1 in the same time frame. Though the first year of the bond would bring the mill rate to an estimated 12.55 compared to 12 without a bond, he estimates that the mill rate would lower to 11.7 within five years compared to 12.08 otherwise.

That information sparked a debate among Deschene and several councilors regarding whether the predicted short-term increase in Presque Isle’s educational mill rate would discourage people from settling in the area despite the prospect of a new school.

“A lot of the focus of this municipality has been on maintaining a flat budget while looking at the impact of the mill rate and taxes on residents,” said Council Chair Emily Smith. “We know that having a lower mill rate can encourage more families to come.”

In July, the City Council approved a slight increase in the property tax rate from $25.60 per $1,000 of property value last year to $25.82 for the new fiscal year. The total amount to be raised through property taxes is $14.4 million, representing an increase of $201,053 over 2017.

Councilor Kevin Freeman agreed with Smith’s comments and suggested that during future public hearings SAD 1 focus on promoting the long-term cost savings of the bond package first if they want more community members on board with the proposed school building plan.

“There are a lot of people who are looking at the mill rate right now and who vote based on their pocketbooks,” Freeman said. He then asked Deschene out of curiosity. “What would happen if we sat back and did nothing (about the school building situation)?”

Deschene went on to say that when SAD 1 brought in engineers to inspect Pine Street Elementary, they concluded that the building needs major roof repairs that could cost $4 million, a price tag that would increase by $1.8 million if additional issues were found during roof repairs. Both the Pine Street and Zippel schools were built in the 1940s and although Zippel does not need repairs as extensive as Pine Street, Deschene said that within five years, the Zippel school’s maintenance costs could increase to as much as Pine Street’s.

He also stated that due to state pressure to put more of SAD 1’s budget into instruction, the district has less funds to work with in regards to maintenance and operational costs. The district eventually would like to receive state funding to build a new high school, but this year Presque Isle High School ranked 21st in terms of overall need on the state’s construction list. That means funding for a new high school would not be available for several years.

“We can’t do nothing. This issue has been manifesting for years and if Pine Street suddenly needed repairs immediately we’d have to close the school temporarily,” Deschene said. “If we wanted to keep the five schools, I don’t think Pine Street would make it.”

Deschene said that the district supports the pre-K to 8 school concept partly to try to reduce the amount of schools that students have to transfer to during their years in pre-K to grade 12. SAD 1 also operates Mapleton Elementary School, which the district is not in favor of closing because that community has recently seen an increase in students and in economic development and because that building was built in the 1970s and is in less need of repairs.

The proposal calls for renovating Presque Isle Middle School and adding 30,000 square feet of space, to include construction of a new 330-seat cafeteria that would serve three lunch periods and a new gym with a multi-purpose area and three play areas. The new school would dedicate the first floor to pre-K to second grade pupils, the second floor to grades three to five, and the third floor to grades six to eight.

Exterior renovations would include a new parking lot that would add 92 vehicle spaces, four lanes in front of the school — two for morning bus drop offs and two for higher grade level drop offs — and two lanes in the back of the school for younger student drop offs. Both internal and exterior renovations would maintain the district’s current grade separation and the “small community school feel” that many people enjoy with the current schools, according to Deschene. The district is currently calling the proposed school the SAD 1 Educational Center.

Jeff Willette, a Presque Isle resident who is running for City Council, asked Deschene if the school board had ever considered closing Pine Street, putting the pre-K to third grade students in Zippel and relocating fourth and fifth grades to the wing of the high school that currently houses the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center while keeping the middle school’s current layout.

“That could be a way to break up the grades without closing two schools,” Willette said.

Deschene noted that the school board had previously discussed the possibility of moving the middle school students to part of the 45,000 vocational wing of the high school but that many parents were strongly against having their children — sixth, seventh and eighth graders — so close in proximity to the high school students.

“Most of those parents would not want fourth to fifth graders mixing with the high school students either,” Deschene said.

Maureen Hanley, who also is running for a seat on the City Council and is a member of the Presque Isle Planning Board, recalled that when her children attended Fort Fairfield schools, the SAD 20 district received funding to combine the middle and high schools and move fifth and sixth grades to a new elementary school due to overcrowding.

“I don’t know what Fort Fairfield did specifically to get bumped up on the list of funding, but it worked for them,” Hanley said.

SAD 1 Superintendent Brian Carpenter stated that such an option would not be possible for the district because in recent years the state has been more likely to support funding for pre-K to 8 schools than on other models.

Deschene said that although he understands why the timing of the bond introduction might seem rather quick when considering how close the municipality is to Election Day, he feels that the current referendum presents the best options to both the district and to the families it serves.

“We will respect whatever decision the voters make and if the bond doesn’t pass we’ll have to look at other options,” Deschene said. “But we’ve spent three years in this process and feel that we’ve arrived at the best way to balance out our schools.”

SAD 1 officials will hold three public hearings in October to further discuss the voter referendum with community members: Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Mapleton Elementary School cafeteria and Thursday, Oct. 4, and Monday, Oct. 29, at the Presque Isle Middle School auditorium.

The city councilors did not take any action on Thursday night in regards to the referendum, as the meeting was only intended to allow for discussion among councilors, school officials and community members.

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