AUBURN — South Portland High School officials offered advice Thursday night to a local committee debating whether Edward Little High School should be renovated or a new school should be built.
“Communicate, communicate, communicate; you cannot communicate enough,” said Ralph Baxter, chairman of the South Portland High School Building Committee.
South Portland is in the middle of a $47 million renovation and expansion to its high school, a project being paid for by local taxpayers. State construction money was not available, South Portland School Superintendent Suzanne Godin said. Even if it was, South Portland is a low state aid receiver. State funding would have only amounted to $3 million or $4 million.
Getting taxpayer approval for a bigger and better high school took two tries at the polls. In 2007, South Portland voters rejected a $53 million bond to renovate and expand the high school. Officials learned to do things differently the second time, including reducing the cost.
And, “we needed to develop a message,” Godin said.
Like Edward Little, South Portland High was put on warning for its accreditation because of deficiencies in the building.
“The message we developed was 'health and safety, accreditation and home values,'” Godin said. The message that home values could go down if the high school lost accreditation resonated with taxpayers.
Another reason the first referendum failed was that from the outside, the building looked beautiful.
“That was one of our major struggles,” Godin said. “Joe Public driving by could not see what was wrong with it.”
The original part of the school was built in the 1950s with additions built later. “The main entrance is one of 20,” Godin said. The entrances aren't visible to staff. “There is no building security. There's no way of knowing who was coming in and out.”
Plumbing systems are outdated. There's water infiltration, decay and mold. An addition is pulling away from the main building. There are 11 levels that are not handicapped accessible, she said.
The building is not energy-efficient, there's bus congestion with buses lining up on streets. The cafeteria is too small, and the building lacks room for programs, Godin said.
To get the second referendum passed, school officials solicited and trained volunteers on delivering the message and how to make sure every question was answered.
They built momentum. A kickoff rally with a news conference and games for children was held at the school's beloved Beal Gym. “It was well-done and simple,” Baxter said.
They sought support from newspapers, television, online and cable outlets. The media “can be your worst enemy or your best friend,” Baxter said. “You have to be honest with them.”
They held tours, inviting the public inside the high school to see problems and to hear how educational needs had changed. They created a Facebook page and put up postings every day.
They held 23 public forums. “It felt like 100,” Baxter said. Sometimes no one attended; sometimes 100 people were there.
“The forums were never in the same place,” Godin said. “We went to elderly housing, PTAs, different buildings all over the community. We went to them. They didn't have to come to us.”
A political action committee, Renew SPHS was formed. Members enlisted volunteers to speak, knock on doors, do mailings and staff phone banks.
Students also got involved, helping with literature drops in neighborhoods, Godin said.
And unlike the first referendum, the second had the support of the City Council. Newspaper editorials urged readers to vote for the project.
While a marketing expert recommended they take six months to develop a message and six months to spread that message, their campaign began Aug. 30 and ended Nov. 2.
It was the right action, Godin said. “We blanketed the community. Residents heard something new about the project every single day. That kind of momentum could not have been sustained with a longer campaign.”
On Election Day, the referendum passed by a 3-1 ratio.
Construction began in June, and the project will be completed in 2015. The work has been carefully planned and is being done in phases so as not to interfere with classes, Godin said.
Auburn's new high school committee will continue meeting on Thursday nights. It is scheduled to recommend one of three actions on March 21: renovate Edward Little, build a new school on the existing site or build a new school on a new site.