After an executive session during a special meeting Monday, Jan. 9, the Wiscasset School Committee voted unanimously to request a special town meeting to allow voters to weigh in on the school department’s proposed $1.75 million energy conservation performance contract with Siemens Inc.
Wiscasset School Department Superintendent Heather Wilmot and school committee Chair Michael Dunn will attend the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen’s Tuesday, Jan. 17 meeting to discuss the request and the language of the warrant article, Wilmot said.
The decision to ask the board of selectmen to hold a special town meeting is a reversal of course for the school department, which was following the process outlined in state statute to enter into an energy conservation performance contract.
The process and the superintendent came under attack from the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen in December with selectmen questioning how the school department could enter into a $1.75 million contract to improve the energy efficiency of school buildings without voter approval.
The school committee voted unanimously in December to authorize Wilmot to finalize the financing and enter into a contract with Siemens Inc. to allow the project to begin, despite the selectmen’s objections.
School committee members publicly clashed with selectmen in a subsequent meeting, calling selectmen’s treatment of the superintendent “embarrassing” and statements selectmen made about the project “untrue allegations.”
Wiscasset Board of Selectmen Chair Judy Colby said the objections she raised were not about the project, but rather about the funding. “Anything that is that much money should go to the people,” Colby said.
The contract would have been a lease-purchase agreement, with annual payments folded into the school department’s budget, which is presented to voters twice for approval.
With a special town meeting, the project will stand on its own before voters.
“I’m very pleased that they’ve decided to take it to the people,” Colby said. “I commend them and thank them for that.”
If voters approve the project at the special town meeting, Wilmot will finalize the contract with Siemens Inc.
The school committee has worked to develop the contract for about a year. Energy savings from the improvements to school department buildings would cover the majority of the lease payments for the project.
In initial financing projections, the project would result in a net increase to the school department’s maintenance budget of $50,000-$60,000, with the remaining portion of the lease payments covered by energy savings and rebates. Payments would be deferred for a year while construction to school buildings is completed.
Lighting upgrades are a major component of the project, Wilmot said. In order to qualify for the Maine Energy Efficiency rebate, the lighting installation would need to be complete by April.
The lease-purchase agreement places the risk of the project with the financial institution, which enables school departments to enter into energy performance contracts without a townwide vote, which is required for bonds.
The contract would include a non-appropriation clause which would absolve the school department from loan payments if voters reject the school budget.
“The school committee was confident in the process. We were following both state statute and legal advice from our attorney,” Wilmot said. However, committee members feel the project “is too important” for there to be any doubt surrounding it, Wilmot said.
It is the most cost-effective approach to address deferred maintenance at school buildings, Wilmot said.
The school committee’s vote to hold a special town meeting was as much an indication of members’ confidence in the project as it was a response to residents who want more of a process around it.
“It’s my duty to do right by the kids and to do right by Wiscasset,” Wilmot said. “We want to keep everything that we do as professional and collaborative as possible.”
“I respect the school board and I hope they respect the select board,” Colby said. “We both have a job to do.”