Emotions ran high in the Medomak Valley High School cafeteria on Thursday, Oct. 26 during a public hearing hosted by the RSU 40 Board of Directors to discuss the proposed $81 million capital improvement bond. While board members and district staff said that the bond was a necessary step to remedy issues from years of wear and tear on underfunded facilities, taxpayers balked at the high price tag the proposal carries.
RSU 40 Facilities Director Brian Race began the proceedings with an itemized presentation of the various renovations and maintenance goals outlined in the bond proposal.
The plan was drawn up with input from RSU 40 administrators and staff, as well as vendors, such as the school’s plumbing and electrical contractors, and Siemens, a company that conducted a facilities review in 2020, Race said.
Race described the objectives of the bond, many of which he said would create a safer environment for students. These goals included meeting state standards for lead and PFAS in drinking water, removing asbestos, improving air quality inside the schools, increasing security, and meeting state electrical and plumbing codes.
Race said that the plan would also extend the life of the existing school buildings within RSU 40 while reducing the cost of utilities and maintenance and improving the experiences of students and staff.
“We anticipate some significant savings when we transition to propane,” Race said, noting that the propane conversion at Miller School has reduced heating costs by a quarter.
Without modifications to the schools, Miller School is 15,000 square feet too small for its current student population by Maine Department of Education standards. Medomak Valley High School is in danger of losing its accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges because of issues with its facilities.
When the presentation turned to the cost breakdown and estimated tax impact of the bond, the room fell silent as the audience regarded the numbers.
While the public generally agreed that the district’s schools need work, speakers from the community consistently expressed concern about the bond’s potential taxpayer impact.
The estimated impact, based on current interest rates and valuations, could cause tax increases peaking around $3.59 per $1,000 of valuation, according to a projection initially supplied by Business Manager Karen Pike at a previous board of directors meeting.
A full list of the modifications and renovations that contribute to this cost is available at rsu40.org. In Waldoboro, the proposal includes $30 million of renovations at Medomak Valley High School, including a new septic system, asbestos abatement, a new sprinkler system, and electrical upgrades, among other renovations. The bond also includes $9 million for a 15,000 square foot addition to the high school.
At Medomak Middle School, the bond proposal allocates $625,000 to renovations from classroom repairs to a replacement water system and safety upgrades. Between the middle and high schools, the bond includes an additional $2.55 million for improvements to parking lots and athletic fields.
There are also allotments for $6.5 million in renovations and a $6.3 million, 12,000-square-foot addition at Miller School.
Districtwide allocations of the proposed budget include $2.5 million for a bus garage, $3.3 million for services and consulting with architects and other professionals, and a construction contingency and bid contingency of 5%, or $2.3 million, each.
“I want to know if you’re fully aware of the income levels of the people that live in this community,” said Sonja Sleeper, of Waldoboro. “I’ve been really upset about this bond proposal … I’m looking at retirement on a fixed income, I’m looking at losing my house.”
“I don’t think the people of Waldoboro can afford this. We have a lot of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, going to the food bank, looking for help,” said Jean Smith, of Waldoboro.
Carl Cunningham, also of Waldoboro, echoed Smith’s and Sleeper’s concerns and focused on the potential impact for retired adults.
“The problem is that a lot of people on Social Security are not going to be able to pay their taxes,” he said.
According to census data, about one in five Waldoboro residents lives below the poverty line. That number is likely an underestimate, said Town Manager Julie Keizer.
Some taxpayers suggested that they would like to see the bond pared down.
“I agree that we certainly need some work in these schools,” said John Blodgett, of Waldoboro, who also sits on the Waldoboro Select Board. “Do we need all of this? Maybe not.”
Cunningham also said he felt that some items listed on the bond proposal were unnecessary.
“There’s a difference between a need and a want, and I think you’ve got a lot of want on there,” he said, raising the board’s plan to build or purchase a new bus garage as an example.
Race responded that the bus garage the district currently uses is leased and poorly ventilated, and is not large enough to allow any maintenance to be performed on the buses while inside.
Race also commented on the state of the MVHS and MMS parking lot, another expenditure that audience members called into question. Smith suggested that the state of the parking lot is not a significant factor in the education and experience of students and staff.
“The impact really is in the wintertime … with slips, trips, and falls,” he said.
Race also noted that the snow removal contractor employed by the district said he could not continue to plow the lot until improvements were made due to concerns over possible damage to his equipment from the poor state of the asphalt.
Some taxpayers also questioned the necessity of installing turf on the playing field at MVHS.
“I don’t care about AstroTurf … this is Maine, we don’t play on AstroTurf here,” said Smith.
Matt Lash, athletic director at MVHS and MMS, disagreed. With four soccer teams and two football teams playing and practicing on the field, he said, the natural grass currently used is “not playable” by the end of the season.
Lash also said that MVHS was the only high school football team in the state without raised bleachers at their home field.
“I want our kids to have what other kids have,” he said.
However, Smith said she worried that the bond would drive rents higher. Landlords will “pass (costs) along – we know that,” she said. “I believe we are hurting a very large population of Waldoboro with a number such as this.”
“If you have to shut down the school and move kids to another school, that’s what you have to do,” said Sleeper.
In an email sent after the hearing, student representative to the board and MVHS student Finian Kelly said that the issues raised in the bond proposal are felt in the day-to-day life of those who attend and work in the schools.
“Students and staff walk on loose asbestos floor tiles, drink water out of lead pipes, and dodge at times severe roof leaks … we can’t even reliably have working water to flush toilets or wash our hands,” he said. “It would be doing a disservice to all of us, but especially students, to let these issues continue to fester, while also making it more costly to find solutions in the very near future.”
Superintendent Steve Nolan similarly said that the bond could represent forward progress for a school district that has been underfunded for years.
Race agreed, saying that RSU 40 expenditure on facilities bore the brunt of efforts to keep the budget down in years past.
“I’ve been to a lot of budget meetings in 21 years,” said Lash. “A lot of questions have come up about why we didn’t make improvements (previously) … we were trying to keep taxes low in a very difficult time.”
As the hearing came to a close, the audience continued to express skepticism.
“You have to look at the reality of what the community can afford,” said Sleeper.
Residents in RSU 40 towns will consider the bond referendum on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Waldoboro polling will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the municipal building at 1600 Atlantic Highway. Information about absentee ballots is available at waldoboromaine.org or by calling 832-5369.
The next meeting of the RSU 40 Board of Directors will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2 in the central office at 1070 Heald Highway in Union.