Lisbon looking for support for school renovations

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LISBON — The crowd was receptive Tuesday night, and the message was clear: They’ll support a new track and a new gymnasium for the high school.

However, the question many asked at the end of the evening was, “Will those who weren’t here support it as well?”

“I’ve been hearing we need a gym, and we need a track for the last four or five years,” Planning Board Chairman Don Fellows said. “I think the group in this room has an opinion, but people who are not in this room don’t have an opinion. So if they see something on the ballot in June that’s going to raise their taxes, how do you think they’ll vote?”

About 150 people gathered in the gymnasium to listen to a presentation on the Capital Improvement Plan that has been partially implemented. The two biggest items that remain are the construction of a new gym, estimated at $5.7 million, and a new track, estimated at $350,000.

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If there is enough public support, two questions will be put on the June ballot. One asks whether a new gymnasium should be built, the other asks if a new track should be built.

Superintendent Rick Green said there will a survey to gauge support of the two items which residents can fill out in paper form or on the Internet.

“I don’t want you to get the impression that we’ve decided to put this on the ballot in June. We’re just getting information out to you this evening. If you think we should move forward, then we’ll put it on. If not, we won’t. But the track and the gym are our long-term goals.”

School Committee Chairman Traci Austin reviewed efforts to secure state funding dating back to 1999 and before. While the state at one time was funding as many as 20 major capital projects, that number has dwindled in recent years to just a few, Austin said.

When the town saw they were listed 27th on the state Department of Education’s Final Priority List in 2010-2011, the decision was made to set up a Capital Reserve Fund. That fund, plus a bond referendum in 2010 and stimulus money, has been used to make a number of improvements at the high school.

“We’ve been able to do bite-sized projects that we could afford through our budget,” Austin said.

Also in 2010, engineers and architects were contracted to see whether building a new school or renovating the existing structure would be most cost-effective and practical.

“We had heard that the building was unsound, that it was built on a bog, so it was sinking,” Austin said.

“So we started asking a lot of questions. We found that the bones of this building are awesome — that great materials were used in building it. That it’s a great site, it’s not sinking, and it’s in the heart of the community.”

Phase I of the renovations included relocating the administration office to the first floor; improving the art, music and science classrooms; installing siding and insulation; improving the accessibility of the main entrance; and replacing windows. Other potential renovations include a new asphalt roof on the gym and bringing natural gas into the building.

“There has been some talk that if we get the gym fixed, we will get back our accreditation,” Green said.

“That’s not true. None of our proposals relate to accreditation.” He explained that the school was put on probation in 2009, but the school is still accredited. The next reaccreditation visit is set for next year. If the questions are put on the ballot, and are approved, the projects would be funded by a 15- or 20-year bond. At the current mill rate of 23, a 15-year bond would add 1.15 mills to the tax rate, while a 20-year bond would add .99 mills.

Ross Cunningham, president of Positive Change Lisbon, urged passage of the measure, saying it would help foster economic development in town. Referring to the exceptional business growth in the neighboring town of Topsham in the last few years, he said, “The town of Topsham had only 5 percent of their taxes paid by businesses before development, and they now have roughly 21 percent paid by businesses.”

He noted that “A huge new building would say ‘we care.’ Developers want to know if people here are going to invest in their own community. We’ve got 150 people here tonight. Now how do we get the message out to the other people?”

“I believe we are getting the message out,” Green said. “I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from people who wanted to know if this was going to be televised because they couldn’t come. There’s still plenty of time. We’ll do everything we possibly can. We’ve got a lot of support tonight.”

Planning Board Chairman Don Fellows urged people to “talk to your neighbors and tell them to talk to their neighbors.”

One elderly gentleman said, “My wife’s graduation was in this gym. She was 19 at the time. She’s now pushing 81, and she can’t wait much longer.”

“I’ll do my best,” Green said.

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