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Sparsely attended hearing sheds light on upcoming RSU 39 school referendum

CARIBOU, Maine — RSU 39 officials hosted an Aug.16 public hearing at the Caribou Performing Arts Center to clarify why a second referendum is being held regarding a new PreK-8 school in Caribou.

A little over a dozen residents turned out for the hearing, which lasted less than half an hour. RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak explained the reasons behind the second referendum and that it will not affect local taxes. Alan Kuniholm of PDT Architects of Portland spoke and Doak fielded a couple of questions about the wording on the ballot.

The first referendum, held in early 2017, asked voters if they would approve $45,640,112 in state funding for the new school. A second question asked if they would approve approximately $2 million in locally funded additions that the city would pay back over the course of 20 years.

To soften the tax impact of the second question, local residents Sam Collins and Ron Willey formed “Friends of Caribou Schools,” a non-profit organization dedicated to raising money to fund these additions. As of this August, the organization has raised roughly $500,000 via community donations.

The second referendum, slated for Thursday, Sept. 6, will ask voters of the RSU 39 communities of Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm if they approve the state of Maine funding an additional $4.8 million for the project and if they would authorize RSU 39’s acceptance of a $25,000 donation to install a floor in the second gymnasium.

At Thursday’s hearing, Doak explained why the district had only received one bid for the project, which was $12 million over the original budget for the new school. Maine has eight new schools scheduled for construction, he said, and several large projects occurring in the southern part of Maine, influencing most major contractors to choose projects closer to home. Material costs have also increased since the budget for the Caribou project was created in 2016.

Of the $45 million approved last year, $37,267,334 was meant specifically for the school, while the remainder covered other fees related to the project, including legal services, funding for PDT Architects, and a number of site studies.

Bowman Constructors’ initial bid of $49,511,000 resulted in a $12,243,666 gap, and school officials worked with Bowman and PDT to close the gap. They agreed to permanently remove several components of the initial project, eliminating skylights and glazing, 15 classroom sinks, a small basement, landscaping and benches, as well as simplifying ceiling lights and roof and wall details.

Even with these items removed, a $4.8 million gap remained. The state recently agreed to fund the difference; however, those additional funds must be approved by RSU 39 area voters, hence the second referendum.

Doak said if the money is not approved by voters, the new school will not have a wood chip boiler, food service appliances, student furniture, multipurpose playing fields, corridor wall protection, granite curbing or high-density asphalt, and RSU would have to fund the abatement and demolition of Teague Park via local tax dollars.

One resident asked why the referendum question asks if voters “favor authorizing the School Board of Regional School Unit No. 39 to fund the unanticipated costs for the new elementary school project,” as it is worded in a way that implies the RSU 39, and therefore local taxpayers, would be paying $4.8 million as opposed to the State Department of Education.

“They don’t understand that it’s not the RSU that is funding it,” she said, “it’s the state that is funding it.”

Doak said it’s worded that way because, even though the state is giving RSU 39 the money, voters need to “authorize us to spend that money.” Doak said the question could not be reworded at this point, and that RSU 39’s attorney only presented a few options in terms of phrasing the question.

Local resident Bruce Hagelstein asked why the $25,000 gym floor was lumped in with the $4.8 million from the state.

“The way you have it here,” he said, “if you vote yes to the $4.8 million, you automatically vote yes to the $25,000.”

The superintendent said he believes it was written that way because the $25,000 was a donation; if it were coming out of local taxes, it would be worded as a separate question.

With no further questions or comments from the audience, the meeting was adjourned and Doak encouraged attendants to vote on Sept. 6.

Caribou residents can vote on the question Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Caribou Wellness Center on 55 Bennett Drive between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Limestone residents will vote at the Limestone Town Office on 93 Main Street from 8 to 8, and Stockholm residents will vote at the Stockholm Town Office on 62 School Street from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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