WALES — Residents of Sabattus, Litchfield and Wales took their concerns about rising costs in a turbulent economy to the board of directors of Regional School Unit 4 Wednesday night, in the last public forum before the August 9 referendum on whether or not to build a new addition at Oak Hill Middle School at a cost of $31.6 million.

The board offered two opportunities for public comment at the special meeting, which was also the first board meeting for new superintendent Katy Grondin.

In her report to the board, Grondin discussed the status of a contract with Siemens to improve the energy efficiencies of the school buildings. Despite escalating costs in just the past few months, Grondin told the board Siemens had agreed to absorb the latest increases and keep the district’s responsibility at $70,500 annually.

Under the school board’s plan, Libby Tozier Primary School and Sabattus Primary School would be closed after the addition to Oak Hill Middle School is completed in 2025. Both are aging schools that need millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades to meet state standards for school buildings. Oak Hill Middle School is the newest of the district’s buildings and has access to public sewer and water, which the two schools targeted for closure do not.

The board has stated in the past that the project is not eligible for state capital construction funding.

Rendering of proposed addition to Oak Hill Middle School. CHA Architecture



The district and residents of the three towns it serves have been discussing closing the two schools and building a new addition since at least 2012. The end result after years of deferred maintenance and kicking the can down the road is a massive bill for repairs and upgrades, or an even bigger bill for a new addition, which is essentially a new school.

Other school districts in Maine are struggling with similar decisions — aging school buildings and high replacement costs. Cape Elizabeth is considering a $126 million project to build a new elementary school, new middle school and update the high school to extend its life. Buildings housing the schools were built in 1934 and 1969.

Like RSU 4, Cape Elizabeth is facing the same daunting task of funding construction without state help, pointing out on its website that the state has not accepted new applicants for school construction funding since 2017-2018.

Residents at the special meeting pressed the board about alternatives, which was also brought up at the public hearing on the referendum on June 22. Vice chairman Robert Gayton put it this way; “you still have a school that’s over 45-50 years old that you have to continually repair.”

The cost of maintaining and operating the two older buildings in this case comes to $1.3 million a year. Those costs do not include other issues the district has been looking into like roof repair and replacement, further testing for lead and PFAS, air quality testing and foundation repairs.

Voters are set to decide this issue in a referendum August 9.

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