Auburn to debate whether to build new high school or renovate

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“In this climate of austerity … it is reckless if not immoral to recommend an expenditure of millions of dollars in excess of what is needed,” committee member, lawyer and Sun Journal columnist Elliott Epstein wrote in a statement he released Jan. 14.

Tom Kendall, who chairs the building committee and the Auburn School Committee, acknowledges some agreement with Epstein, but points out that a showcase high school could bring new homeowners and businesses to Auburn, expanding the city’s tax base.

The New High School Steering Committee will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Auburn Hall to debate three options for the crammed, inefficient, less-than-attractive Edward Little High School, the same flaws that have put the school’s accreditation on probation.

Option 1: A major renovation on the site; Option 2: A new building on the site; Option 3: A new building on a new site.

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The steering committee, which has been meeting since last year, is close to making a recommendation to the School Committee, which expects to put the question to a voter referendum. That referendum could be as soon as November, or next year.

It’s not known how much a new or improved high school would cost, or how it would be paid for. Estimates show that gutting and upgrading the school would cost $45 million to $49 million. A new school could be $62 million or more.

Edward Little is No. 16 on the most recent state construction list. With no state money currently backing the proposed project, local taxpayers could be asked to foot the entire bill, which would boost local property taxes.

How much depends on the price tag.

The Sun Journal asked Auburn City Manager Clint Deschene how a 30-year bond for $45 million and $62 million would affect the annual property taxes of a home valued at $150,000. Deschene declined to give those numbers, saying he would only provide that tax estimate if asked by the steering committee.

Epstein: Voters would reject new school

Epstein said last week he doubted Auburn residents would vote for a new high school. “Defeat will mean the project will be delayed by at least another year, not to mention losing a good deal of credibility in the process,” Epstein said.

Such a delay in doing something could mean loss of the school’s accreditation, the loss of young, middle-class families from Auburn and greater difficulty in attracting new businesses.

Epstein said he is pushing for a major renovation, costing between $44 million and $49 million.

Auburn doesn’t need the kind of high school staff are pushing for, such as a 6,000-square-feet for weight training and aerobics and a 800-seat auditorium, Epstein said. “Someone needs to remind them this is a high school,” not the Julliard School or “the training center for the New England Patriots.”

A renovated school would be almost as good as brand new, Epstein said. The foundation, steel skeleton and bricks are unlikely to wear out and can be retrofitted. “There is no magic to designing the school of tomorrow,” he said. It’s not going to be “the international space station, just a big box with some classrooms that are 1,000 square feet instead of 800 square feet.”

Epstein feels so strongly that building new would be wrong, he said he’d resign from the committee if that was the direction members decided to take “and continue to publicly speak out against it.”

Kendall: ‘State-of-the-art’ could expand tax base

Kendall complained Epstein is trying to gain an advantage in public opinion by getting out early with his opposition to a new school.

“The intent is to debate this openly,” Kendall said. “There isn’t going to be a vote. This isn’t a final thing at all,” but the steering committee will debate the three options, Kendall said.

There are pros and cons of each option. If the existing Edward Little was gutted and rebuilt, “you’re staying with the steel structure footprint as it is” with limited additional space, Kendall said. The advantage is it would be the least costly, but it would take more time than building new because construction would have to work around the student schedule.

A longer construction would mean additional costs, Kendall said. With renovating “you’re not going to get the same type of space in a new building, and space is critical to program delivery,” Kendall said. “We need lecture halls. We need video space to capture what’s going on in classrooms.”

Renovating wouldn’t address all the needs that have been expressed by staff, he said. “There’s a limitation of rehabbing the existing structure.”

A new high school on the same site would result in a bigger, better school, but “you’d be somewhat limited to where you can put it.” There would also be demolition costs of tearing down the old building when the new school is built, Kendall said. And construction wouldn’t happen as quickly as with a new site.

If a new high school was built on a new site, it would mean the existing high school building could be sold, generating revenue and avoiding demolition costs, he said.

Responding to Epstein’s complaint that taxpayers cannot afford a new high school, Kendall said there is research that shows “if you build a better school, a showcase school, you will bring economic development and a new citizenry into your area.”

If Auburn had a 21st century school, one that would stand out from other area high schools, “we would start drawing people to this community. As you draw people you invite business.” That, Kendall said, would boost the tax base.

“Now our tax base is going in the wrong direction.” People who work in Portland may consider living in Auburn.

When asked how much a major renovation, a new school on the existing site, or a new school on a new site would cost, Kendall said those estimates aren’t yet available. It’s impossible to know the costs of a new school at a new site if that site is not yet picked, he added.

There is available land in Auburn to build a new high school, and he’d like to see the Auburn School Department explore buying with a specific landowner. He declined to say where since “we haven’t talked to the owners.”

When the steering committee recommends which option they favor, “then we figure out how to afford it,” Kendall said. “That’s going to take some work.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

New School Steering Committee members:

The chairman is Tom Kendall, who is also chairman of the Auburn School Committee. Other members are Churchill Barton, Leighton Cooney, Brian Dubois, Elliot Epstein, Steve Martelli, Alfreda Fournier and Rick Vail, all business leaders and/or citizens; Eric Cousens, city planner; Jude Cyr, School Department business manager; Pam Delong and Linda Sherwood, residents and parents.

Also, Clinton Deschene, city manager; Patricia Gautier, Edward Little High School librarian; Joyce Gibson, Dean of University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College; Katy Grondin, school superintendent; Bonnie Hayes, Larry Pelletier and William Horton, School Committee members; Billy Hunter, School Department support services director; Mary LaFontaine, city councilor ; Jim Miller, Edward Little High School principal.

Meeting 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, Council Chambers, Auburn Hall, to debate three options for improving Edward Little High School. “The public’s going to start to know what we are thinking” and consider which option they favor, School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said.  “At this point we’re trying to get a sense from the public.”

Estimated timeline: Steering committee hopes to give its recommendation to the School Committee in late winter or early spring. The School Committee may ask the public for an unofficial straw vote during the school budget referendum in May. The project could go to referendum this November, unless the direction from the public is to pursue a new school on a new site, which would involve more time, Kendall said.

For more information: http://www.auburnschl.edu/pages/Auburn_School_Department/About_Us/EL_Steering_Committee

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