It appears that Auburn voters will be given a choice as to whether to build a new high school but no choice as to the scope and cost of the project they’ll be asked to approve in a June 11 referendum.

The Edward Little High School Building Committee decided Tuesday to place only one thumbs-up-or-down question on the ballot rather than giving voters a menu of options and prices.

A preliminary “straw poll” question put to attendees at a public hearing on the planned new high school March 13, 2019, read as follows:

“Do you support the proposed Concept Design for the New Edward Little High School Project, -approximately $109,335,693 (86.91%), the local will fund $16,462,076 (13.09%) with up to $15,000,000 in Local Bonds, $1,000,000 in school capital improvement funds, and additional funds through fundraising and grants for the $683,932, which is the second turf field?”

Not surprisingly, given the binary option of “yes” or “no” to a new school, the straw poll passed by a margin of 197 to 12. If the Building Committee has its way, a similar question will be framed for the referendum on final project approval. Following the March straw poll, School Committee Chair Tom Kendall telegraphed that intention. Tuesday’s decision, therefore, was merely a formality.

Kendall, an Auburn School Committee and Building Committee perennial, opined that the ballot question “doesn’t need to be broken out. The community is going to support this.” His rationale was that the current high school was built in 1961 on a bare-bones budget, making it woefully deficient, and that no one would want to repeat the same mistake.

I doubt most voters recall the 1961 decision, or, even if informed of it, would agree that a structure, which cost only about $2 million, has been in continuous use for nearly 60 years, and is still physically serviceable despite being functionally outdated, was a mistake. But Kendall, along with fellow longtime board member Bonnie Hayes and School Superintendent Katy Grondin, seem to share the monument-building ambitions of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and are determined get the high school of their dreams. They intend to leave nothing to chance, including the will of the electorate.

What’s disturbing is that the Edward Little High School project, like a large Christmas tree, is loaded with ornaments, yet voters won’t really have the opportunity or the information to decide which ones they wish to pay for.

The straw poll was preceded by a presentation by the project’s architects, followed by a short question-and-answer question session involving the audience. An informational handout featured some attractive exterior and interior renderings of the building, floor plans, a site sketch, and a forecast of the project’s local-cost impact on municipal taxes. I found the presentation, question-and-answer session, and handout to be long on hype and short on information. In the end, I didn’t cast a vote, because I felt I lacked sufficient data to make an informed decision.

The current Edward Little High School is obsolescent and shabby. The need for a renovated or new building has been evident for at least a decade. No one disputes that. Several committees have worked on plans to replace it, but only in 2016, after the project qualified for state funding, was full-scale planning possible.

I served on the previous ELHS building committee, appointed in 2012, but I resigned in early 2013 when the committee recommended a totally new structure with a potential project price tag I felt would be unacceptable to the community in the absence of state funding. At that time, the cost for a new school on the existing site was estimated at about $62 million, while the alternative, renovation of the existing structure, was forecast to be about $50 million.

After state funding became available, a new committee was appointed, and all thoughts of controlling costs were apparently abandoned. The current project price tag of $126 million is over twice the 2013 estimate of $62 million, well beyond any construction-cost inflation factor.

The most honest way to approach the electorate at referendum would be to break out each locally funded element of project cost into a separate question, adding as many questions and as much information as needed to adequately inform the voters’ decision.

For instance, one local project cost is geothermal heating and cooling. A ballot question might read: “Do you support a geothermal energy system for the new Edward Little High School, to be funded by a $1 million local bond issue, a feature which is projected to pay itself through energy cost savings within two years of operation?”

The most questionable add-on involving local funding is a 1,200 seat state-of-the-art performing arts center. Clearly the new school should have an auditorium/performing arts center, but the size of the proposed one is mind boggling. It would be about half the size of Boston Symphony Hall and almost two-thirds that of Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, both cavernous spaces in populous cities with larger pools of concert and theater goers. A facility that big would be not only expensive to build but to maintain. Think about all those upholstered seats that will need to be repaired or replaced, floor areas cleaned, and sophisticated audio-visual systems serviced. Such facilities aren’t for mere intermittent or partial use, which is why local performance spaces only have seating capacities for about 400.

If you ask the School Department how many times each year the auditorium will be utilized at or near capacity for school functions, you won’t get an answer. If you ask how many times it will be used for revenue-generating events, the only answer you’ll receive is that Westbrook High School’s 1,000 seat auditorium, which has been hosting fee-generating events, realized a profit after its first three years of operation. If you ask to see a market study to support the proposed facility, you’ll come up empty handed, because none has been done.

The bottom line for me is whether the Auburn is going to take a financially responsible or a “field of dreams” approach towards construction of the new high school.

Since no one else seems to be looking out for their fiscal interests on the high school project, the city’s voters will have to look out for themselves. But they can only do so, if they’re permitted a real choice on the referendum ballot and provided the hard data to support that choice.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]