SALEM TOWNSHIP — Voters soon will have to revisit some difficult financial choices to pay for repairing, rebuilding and upgrading two of Regional School Unit 58’s four schools.

In October 2013, the school board unanimously agreed that sending Mt. Abram High School students to other school districts was not a workable option to cut taxpaxpayers’ costs in Phillips, Strong, Kingfield and Avon.

After a lengthy review of the benefits of closing or combining schools, directors said they would be faced with paying approximately $8.2 million for tuition, salaries, transportation and other associated costs for the entire district. That would be a $1 million savings, but the district would lose state subsidies, requiring taxpayers to cover up to $200,000 between the lost revenue and the increased expenses to send high school students elsewhere. The district also would lose all control over future cost increases.

Still, the high school and Phillips Elementary School continued to have problems that needed attention.

At recent school board meetings, Superintendent Susan Pratt said the buildings needed work that could save energy costs, make them safer and compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and improve the learning environment for students.

“Mt. Abram High School opened 47 years ago, and the building is showing its age,” she said. “Some necessary facilities are failing, and others are nonexistent.”

In rainy weather, students routinely walk around buckets that catch water from a leaky roof. The gymnasium has no ventilation system, and students in the science lab are using the same equipment as their parents and grandparents. The lighting fixtures are old, and the building has a patchwork of computer wiring.

“Some parts of the building are too cold, and other parts are too hot,” Pratt said. “And we have to pull a fuse to work on the fire alarm system.”

Past boards and administrations addressed some decisions about these ever-increasing problems, but the Phillips Elementary School and the high school now face code violations. The school board has agreed to explore state-level loans and grants to fund the most urgent needs.

Pratt started the application process for the Maine Department of Education’s School Revolving Renovation Fund to help pay for these costs.

“Our district never has applied for these funds, but every year, the state awards money to other districts that qualify,” she said. “We certainly are eligible in many categories, but we’ll have to compete with other aging schools around the state.”

Pratt has applied for four of the combinations of loans and grants, and hopes to hear by February 2017 if the district will get the money for any or all requests.

“As a district, we first must look at renovations or renovations with additions,” Pratt said.

The Maine Municipal Bond Bank and the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services’ Bureau of General Services would provide engineering expertise, technical reviews and bidding and contract assistance for approved projects. The costs could be built into the school district’s budget, as they were to pay for the Strong Elementary School construction.

“A portion of each renovation loan is considered a grant and is forgiven,” Pratt said.

The remaining 30 to 70 percent of the loan can be repaid with no interest within 10 years. Payments would be based on the district’s percentage of state subsidy.

The maximum loan amount is $1 million within a five-year period for each approved project per school building. The repairs and upgrades to the Phillips Elementary School would be approximately $631,500, and the Abram High School project is estimated at $1.2 million.

Pratt will seek board support to apply for a second category of state-subsidized financing through the Major Capital School Construction bonds.

She said, “Mt. Blue High School (in Farmington) was the last large state project funded in this category.”

As assistant superintendent, Pratt worked with then-Superintendent Mike Cormier and the RSU 9 school board in Farmington through the initial stages of the five-year construction schedule. The Mt. Blue High School project was based on the possibility of recycling existing structures and materials as much as possible, she said, and a Mt. Abram High School rebuilding project would follow that strategy. The application project itself is lengthy and extremely detailed.

“A team from the Maine Department of Education reviews each application and conducts a site visit to each school district,” she said. “The deadline for that application is in April.”

The MDOE team rates each potential project and prioritizes a list of finalists based on need. The DOE commissioner presents the list to the State Board of Education, which funds as many projects as possible until the debt limit is reached. Funding covers approximately 98 percent of the costs, Pratt said, but state departments approve both size and financial limits on projects.

If RSU 58 receives funding, communities may decide to exceed these limits, but at their own expense.


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