The Wiscasset School Department will consider its legal options regarding the $1.75 million energy conservation performance contract with Siemens Inc. that was voted down at Wiscasset’s annual town meeting by referendum June 13.
The Wiscasset School Committee, at its Thursday, June 22 meeting, instructed Superintendent Heather Wilmot to contact the school department’s legal counsel to determine their options regarding the contract.
Voters rejected the project 384-329. The turnout at the annual town meeting was low, school committee member Jason Putnam said. “There are more than 50 people in town that are for it that didn’t vote,” he said.
The results at the polls were because a certain demographic “showed up to pull the lever,” Putnam said.
The warrant article was also misleading and there was a lot of “misinformation” circulating in the community, Chair Michael Dunn said.
The treasurer’s note that accompanied the warrant article, a standard feature of bond authorizations, showed the total outstanding debt of the town combined with the proposed energy project.
Wiscasset currently has $3.9 million in outstanding bonds. If a new bond was issued for the energy project, the total indebtedness of the town would have risen to $5.65 million, according to the treasurer’s note.
The treasurer’s note stated the total cost of the project with interest, based on a 3.35 percent interest rate, to be $2,271,611. There was no information on the warrant article about the savings the school district would see in energy costs, Dunn said.
According to financial projections from Siemens, the savings in energy and operational costs would begin to pay for the project by year 12, Dunn said.
“Of course I’m disappointed” by the results of the election, Wilmot said, “but I’m proud of our work advocating for our schools.”
The energy project is important for students, so they have an environment where they can learn, Wilmot said. “I feel strongly the schools are worth fighting for and this project is worth fighting for,” she said.
Committee member Glen Craig restated his position that the energy project should not have been placed on the warrant. The school committee only agreed to have it placed on the warrant “to be the nice guys,” Craig said.
The school committee followed the correct legal process to enter into the energy conservation performance contract, Craig said. It did not require a townwide vote because it was structured as a lease-purchase agreement, which the school committee twice authorized.
However, the school department was unable to secure funding for the lease-purchase agreement due to a letter the board of selectmen sent to financial institutions Wilmot was negotiating with.
Selectmen objected to the school committee entering into the project without a townwide vote, but would not schedule a special election to consider it. The energy contract was placed on the warrant for the annual town meeting because of pressure from selectmen, who acted outside the scope of their authority, Craig said.
Because the energy project went to a townwide vote, the school department proposed financing it as either a lease-purchase agreement or a bond. In a lease-purchase agreement, the risk lies with the financial institution. With a bond, the risk lies with taxpayers, which is why it requires voter authorization.
However, bonds typically carry lower interest rates than lease-purchase agreements, so the school department requested authorization for either form of financing to secure the best possible rates, Wilmot said previously.
The school department signed a letter of intent with Siemens Inc. when it hired the company to conduct an energy audit as the first step in the project more than 1 1/2 years ago. The school department will have to pay about $15,000 to Siemens if it does not complete the project.
That money should go toward the energy project, Craig said. “It’s our responsibility to take care of our facilities. We’re not doing our due diligence” if we cancel the project, he said.
When Wilmot accepted her position, she was tasked with revitalizing the schools, she said. In order to do that, “it’s critical that we respond to our learning environment and the deferred maintenance in our buildings,” she said.
Wilmot said she will ask legal counsel about next steps and then report back to the school committee. “I’m willing to fight for our schools,” she said.