Voters in a recent unofficial poll at Edward Little High School in Auburn voted 197-12 in favor of a new $125.8 million high school. School officials are considering presenting voters with just one ballot question when the official vote comes up June 11, instead of separating the vote into one ballot for the state-financed portion of the project and another for the locally funded portion. Sun Journal file photo by Russ Dillingham

AUBURN — The ballot question on whether to approve a new, $125.8 million Edward Little High School may combine state and local funding.

Officials have not yet made a final decision on whether to offer one question that combines the $109.34 million to be paid by the state and the $16.46 million taxpayers will be asked to finance.

But that’s how they’re leaning.

And some say the plan poses risks that could hurt the proposal’s chances.

Eating lunch at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn on Tuesday, Maurice Ouellette said he’d like to see several questions on the ballot when he votes. It would allow people to separately consider the merits of several proposed features in the new school plan that would be financed by Auburn taxpayers, he said.

“We need a brand-new school,” Ouellette said, but he questioned the need for a 1,200-seat auditorium.

His lunch mate, Ralph Tuttle of Auburn, said one ballot question is fine with him, “just as long as it explains how much is from the state, how much from the city and it’s not obscure.” Tuttle said he expected voter approval will be “a slam-dunk.”

Another man, who declined to give his name, said he didn’t support a new school regardless of what’s on the ballot. “It’s too much money.”

Kaitlyn Oliver said she’d be fine with one referendum question. She said she looks forward to her fourth-grader going to a new high school. “I graduated from Edward Little,” she said. “We need a new school. That school is falling down.”

Maurice Ouellette of Auburn takes a break from breakfast at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn last week to talk about his views on the proposed Edward Little High School. He said he would like the issue to be separated into two questions when it goes to voters. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Under the method used for funding new school projects, the state agrees to pay for certain elements, but leaves it up to individual cities or school districts to pay for features it considers “extras.”

Auburn School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said last week, “We’re leaning toward one question.”

That was the approach used when the project was recently put before the City Council and at a March 13 public straw poll. Both the council and attendees at the straw poll voted for the total $125.8 million project.

But some say a safer route would be to present two or more questions to voters: one seeking approval of the school project that would be financed completely by the state, and one or more questions seeking approval for the elements of the project to be financed by Auburn taxpayers.

That’s how most school referendums have been presented, said Jim Rier, the former commissioner of the Maine Department of Education. The reasoning, said Rier, is that if the first question is approved but the second is not, the result wouldn’t jeopardize the entire school project and the state money behind it.

“You might step back and say, ‘It’s going to pass.’ But not necessarily. There are negative folks out there, I’m sure,” Rier said.

‘MISTAKE’ OF 1961

Auburn school officials counter that strategy, saying they have confidence voters will approve one all-inclusive question that makes it very clear where the money is coming from.

Kendall said the June 11 ballot question will explain that the state is paying the bulk of the project and taxpayers would pay the remaining estimated cost. Or less.

Under a fundraising plan, school officials and new-school supporters have set a goal of raising $3.5 million to $5 million privately through sponsorships and other methods that would lower the ultimate local cost to taxpayers.

The ballot question “doesn’t need to be broken out,” Kendall said. “The community is going to support this.” He said he’s confident voters don’t want to repeat decisions made in 1961 that resulted in an inferior high school. 

Ralph Tuttle of Auburn said he would be fine if the question on building a new high school were one question on the ballot June 11, as long as the sources of financing for the project are made clear in the question. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

In that year, voters rejected two referendums on a new high school, finally approving a significantly trimmed-down third referendum that, in some people’s opinion, left the school lacking from the day it opened.

“They cut out the gym, the cafeteria. We ended up with a bare-boned school,” Kendall said. “Too many of us have gone through this high school with its deficits, lack of services, lack of space.”

He added, “We’re going to do it right. This school will last 60 or 70 years” and start out immediately meeting the needs of students. 

City Councilor Holly Lasagna said she’d like to see two versions of the ballot question.

“That being said, having two parts to a ballot question can be confusing. We want to ensure that voters have a clear understanding of what they are voting for, no matter which way they decide to go.”

At one point in the development of the new school plan, officials were considering proposing $23 million in extra features the state would not cover. More negotiations with the state brought more state money, however, and local costs were reduced to $16.46 million. At that point, Building Committee members favored offering voters one question with all of the features included, feeling that giving voters more than one option could splinter support.

Kendall said the lower local cost of $16.46 million was deemed acceptable given it will be “a state-of-the-art facility that will lay the foundation for the rebirth of Auburn as a dynamic and vibrant place to live and work.”

Auburn School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said last week that the board is leaning toward presenting the Edward Little High School project in one question for voters. Sun Journal file photo

During recent community meetings about the elements not covered by the state, few people raised questions about two of the major elements: the proposed larger athletic complex and a geothermal heating and cooling system, which will pay for itself in about two years, according to officials.

The third major feature, a proposed $5.5 million performing arts center, however, has attracted both praise and criticism. Supporters say it’s needed, will put Auburn on the map and has the potential for being self-sustaining as a regional performance venue because of its size. Critics say it’s simply too expensive.

During the March 13 nonbinding straw poll, the entire $125.8 million project was approved by a vote of 197-12. Rier, the former education commissioner, noted that people attending a straw poll on education issues are often school-friendly and may not represent overall voters.

In Sanford and Lewiston, recent votes for new schools have used both approaches when it comes to ballot questions.

A NO VOTE? 

In Lewiston in 2016, when voters approved the new elementary school, they were asked two questions. The first asked for approval of a new school as envisioned if paid entirely by the state. Voters said yes, 2,459 to 980. The second question asked for approval of $2.7 million, to be paid by Lewiston taxpayers, for elements the state wouldn’t cover: a larger gym, air conditioning and an artificial turf field. Voters said yes by a smaller margin of 1,854 to 1,310.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said he felt it was important to break apart the state and local funding in the ballot questions.

“That’s the way I’ve always done it,” he said. “I never thought it would be worth the risk to jeopardize the whole thing for an amenity. And to me it would be less transparent.”

In Sanford in 2015, voters were asked to approve a new high school paid for with state money, plus $7.9 million paid through local taxes. Sanford voters said yes, 2,311 to 688.

In a second question, the city’s voters were asked to approve another $2.7 million in local funding for features not covered by the state. Voters approved the second question, 2,058 to 931. The $100 million high school opened last fall.

In Auburn, it took a long time to get state money to build a new school.

The design plan for the new Edward Little High School. The auditorium is the large block to the right of center, in dark blue.

In  2013, after years of waiting and problems at ELHS mounting, School Committee members were considering asking the City Council to approve a referendum asking voters to approve a new, $62 million school paid entirely through local property taxes. The estimated tax increase at that time was $336 a year for the owner of a $150,000 property.

By contrast, the current proposal means an estimated property tax increase of $96 a year for a $150,000 property.

In May of 2013, Rier, who was then Maine deputy education commissioner, cautioned Auburn to be patient. The city was No. 16 on the state’s school construction priority list. “Being No. 16 doesn’t guarantee anything, but it isn’t hopeless,” Rier told the School Committee.

With that news, plans to finance a new school locally were junked and city officials decided to wait. In 2016 the wait paid off when the state announced money for a new Edward Little had been approved.

If one all-inclusive question is asked on June 11 and voters say no, another referendum would have to be held “very quickly,” Rier said.

State regulations provided by the state Department of Education indicate a community must approve a new school within six months of the state approving the project, in order to secure state funding. The Maine Board of Education is scheduled to approve the new Edward Little project on April 11.

That means if Auburn voters reject the referendum on June 11, the city would have four months to get voter approval.