AUBURN — Tom Kendall is working on a plan.
“I'm going to get you a new high school building by building you a new high school and a new elementary school at less money than it would cost to build just a new high school,” Kendall said.
Kendall, the School Committee chairman, said he's not acting in his official role, but as a resident.
The total cost for an elementary school campus and new high school would be $100 million, he said.
If he's able to deliver, Auburn taxpayers would be asked to approve a $40 million bond. The remaining $60 million would be paid for by savings, money in the existing budget and new revenue sources, Kendall said.
Some of the savings would come from closing five old elementary schools — Washburn, Sherwood Heights, East Auburn, Fairview and Walton. The new Park Avenue would be repurposed. A single elementary school campus behind the Auburn Middle School would be built.
A majority of city councilors have said his idea was intriguing enough to explore. City Councilor Joshua Shea disagreed.
Anyone who supported the concept, he said last week, was “living in a fantasy land. Nobody that goes to any of those schools is going to let that happen at the ballot box.”
This week, Kendall acknowledged he doesn't have all the numbers worked out yet. He said he's getting close.
Kendall's vision goes like this.
The community is poorly served by the existing high school because it's on probation for accreditation because of the facility. Space is inadequate for programs, there's unhealthy air, poor insulation, an inadequate cafeteria and only one science lab to serve 1,000 students.
A substandard high school isn't just bad for students, it hurts the community's chances of attracting economic development, as well as taxpayers who will pay taxes and grow the local economy, Kendall said.
But asking local taxpayers to pay for a $50 million or $60 million high school would be rejected at the ballot box, he predicted. “It's a tough time nationally, on the state level, at the community level. No one can afford anything, and there's no help.”
Yet Auburn has to do something about the high school.
His fear is that what happened in 1961 will happen again, and Auburn will once again be left with an inadequate high school.
Twice the city asked taxpayers in referendum for a new school and it didn't pass. Spending was cut until something finally passed, but the school built in 1961 “was a shell of what it should have been,” Kendall said. There was no gym, no cafeteria and the school “was poorly built. We were left with problems.”
Today, $30 million or $35 million “doesn't get you the right structure, the right space,” he said. “It doesn't get you the new auditorium, new cafeteria, science labs, the floor space to deliver 21st century education.”
Kendall said he wants to avoid making the same mistake. Voters should be asked to approve a project that will get the best return of the public dollar and not be asked to build prematurely again.
That might be done with $100 million to build two schools, he said. That kind of bond would mean annual payments of $7 million.
Kendall believes voters may support borrowing $40 million, which would mean annual loan payments of $3 million.
His plan for where the remaining $60 million, or an annual loan payment of $4 million, would come includes the $1 million already in the budget that the School Department borrows each year to keep buildings from deteriorating, which is less than half what should be spent on maintenance. The School Department could save another $1.7 million to $2 million a year by closing old, inefficient buildings and operating new, efficient ones, he said.
Taking these figures into account, Kendall's numbers to make the annual payments of $7 million are still about $1 million shy. “What else can I do?” Kendall asked.
Big facilities use lots of energy. Some large organizations, such as Google, Dell and a California university, have built multi-megawatts fuel cells to produce energy at a lower cost than the market value. They've become a utility and sell power for less money, “generating it absolutely green,” he said.
It could come from hydrogen, biomass and geothermal. “There's a savings. I don't know what it is yet, but there's no reason a public entity can't do the same.” He doesn't have the numbers together at this time, he said. “But some very smart people in big companies are doing it. I've got to believe there's value we could realize.”
When asked about one big elementary school, Kendall acknowledged that there'd be public resistance, but the conversation needs to be started.
Advantages of a single elementary campus would be the administration could move out of Auburn Hall, the alternative Franklin and Merrill Hill programs could vacate their old buildings and move into the new Park Avenue building, saving rent and maintenance costs.
Another advantage is less costs to catch up on building repairs, he said. Auburn is now spending half of what it should to maintain the old buildings. A recent study showed that in order to catch up on repairs, Auburn would need to spend more than $20 million over the next 20 years.
An education benefit of one elementary campus is that students would no longer receive different programs, Kendall said. In any community with multiple elementary schools, “you've got the better school over here, the disadvantaged over there. That's the public perception and some reality,” he said.
Taxpayers buy homes in the more affluent areas, but “no one wants to live over there, in the poor neighborhoods. The poor neighborhoods keep going down.” With one large elementary school, “now everyone's equal. There isn't this disparity.”
The middle school is now “a problem,” Kendall said. Students from the city's six schools come with different backgrounds and experiences. A single elementary campus means “all students are going through the same experience. Middle school, then, is an extension of that.”
Auburn needs new schools to help grow the tax base, he said.
“How do you change that dynamic where more people are getting on assistance as opposed to being the taxpayer buying a new home, putting a new business here? My belief is education is a part of that.”
New schools would affirm Auburn's dedication to education, “and that affirmation is attraction," he said. "It does attract business. There are studies that say if you build it, they will come.”