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Small crowd attends hearing on $15 million PI school bond package

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With two public hearings down and one to go, MSAD 1 officials continue to make the case for a $15 million bond package that would pay for expanding Presque Isle Middle School into a pre-K to 8 facility while closing two Presque Isle elementary schools.  

On Thursday night, less than 30 people showed up for the second of three public hearings on MSAD 1’s proposal to borrow $15 million to expand the middle school and close Pine Street and Zippel elementary schools.

“There’s been a lot of frustration in the district for the last few years,” said Clint Deschene, the assistant superintendent for business. “We want to see less money going into our buildings and more money going into our students. Buildings are important to our students, but we have to look at what’s the right way to do it. This saves us money.”

Superintendent Brian Carpenter said that across the state, school districts have a collective $6 billion in deferred maintenance to schools that in many cases are both showing their age and educating fewer students than in decades past.

MSAD 1 has five schools, three of them older than 50 years, and is looking at maintenance costs district-wide estimated at $11 million over the next decade, Deschene said.

The $15 million bond project grew out of the district’s right-sizing initiative that began three years ago, as the board and administration began analyzing the district’s building footprint and repair needs. While Pine Street Elementary is filled to capacity, the three other Presque Isle schools are under-capacity.

The district’s enrollment has declined by 10 percent since 2000 and continues to fall by about 1.5 percent each year.

The Pine Street Elementary roof, for which a needed replacement is estimated to cost $4 million, “started out as a $300,000 project,” Deschene said, in response to a question at the hearing Thursday.

“The engineers looked into it and concluded it would be a much bigger project,” with a new roof membrane, framing, heating and ventilation, sprinklers and asbestos abatement needed to meet current building codes.  

“You’re going to spend $4 million on Pine Street over the next five years and you’re going to spend that amount of money the next five after,” Deschene said, summarizing the engineering analysis.

Across the district, Pine, Zippel, Mapleton and the middle school are in need of an estimated $11 million in maintenance over the next decade, Deschene said.

Rather than spending all of that money on older buildings, the district has decided to try to invest in a new consolidated elementary and middle school for Presque Isle that would be more efficient and offer long-term savings, despite an upfront spending increase, Deschene said.

MSAD 1 currently operates on 11.35 mills of local property taxes, which is on track to rise 8 percent to 12.3 in 16 years under the current school footprint, according to Deschene. The $15 million pre-K to 8 school project would lead to a reduction in the mill rate by as much as 20 percent to between 9.7 and 10.1 in the same time frame, after an initial period of it operating at 12.55 mills for up to five years.

The $15 million investment in a pre-K to 8 school also would preserve the high school’s status as a strong candidate for state construction funding in the next decade, Deschene said. Presque Isle High School is one of the oldest operating high schools in the state, with the first wing of it built in the late 1940s, and MSAD 1 has not had a state-funded school construction project since Mapleton Elementary was built in 1974, he said.

The bond proposal would authorize the district to borrow up to $15 million, and it’s possible the project would cost less than that, Deschene said.

The most recent state-funded school project came in at a cost of $450 per square foot, Deschene said. “This comes in at a higher estimated square foot cost than that. In other words, our estimated square foot cost we feel is high.”

“We’re confident this will come in at or under $15 million, if we design it and we bid it in the next year.”

Voters in the MSAD 1 member communities of Castle Hill, Chapman, Mapleton, Presque Isle and Westfield will vote on the proposal on Nov. 6. Before that, the district will hold a final public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, at Presque Isle High School.

Deschene said that he, Carpenter and the school board members welcome feedback on the proposal and will be soliciting input on the features of the school if the initiative passes.

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