Thursday, February 21, 2002

Cape may take school project to voters

Published in the Current

Some Cape Elizabeth town councilors are leaning toward sending a proposed $5-million-plus school renovation project out to referendum, although a recent state law removed the requirement for school building projects to be taken to a town-wide ballot.

But councilors are careful to say they will wait for a full proposal from the School Board before making a final decision.

“School projects have always been voted for by the public,” said Councilor Mary Ann Lynch. “I think there’s an expectation on the part of the public that they get to vote on a school project.”

Lynch said she has not yet made up her mind, but added “projects of that magnitude probably ought to go out to referendum.”

The project, expected to cost between $5 and $6 million, will include renovations to the high school and an addition to the Pond Cove School to house the kindergartners, who now use classrooms in the high school.

Lynch said she is now asking herself if all projects—school-related or not—above a certain dollar amount should go to referendum. “Put them all out or don’t,” she said.

It’s unlikely that the council would ignore the results of a referendum, Lynch said. “There would be no point in asking for a referendum if you weren’t going to follow the wishes of the voters,” she said.

Councilor Jack Roberts said he has spoken to town residents who think they should have the right to vote on the proposal. But Roberts supports either making a decision on the council or letting the voters have the final say.

“A non-binding referendum doesn’t make much sense to me,” Roberts said. But not all projects go out to the voters, he said. “Most of the municipal projects don’t go to referendum,” Roberts said. The two most recent examples are the police and fire stations and the community center.

But any of them could. “All spending projects approved by the Town Council over a certain level are subject to a voter veto,” Lynch said.

A part of the Town Charter permits any town council-approved capital expense over a certain amount to be appealed by the voters.

With the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters of the town, residents could force a binding referendum on any project above 0.5 percent of the state valuation of the property in town. That means any project over about $400,000 would be subject to possible recall.

So rather than making a decision that could be unmade by voters, Lynch said, “have the vote first.”

One advantage of a referendum, Lynch said, would be more public awareness about the building project.

Council Chairwoman Anne Swift-Kayatta agreed with her fellow councilors that it is too early to make a decision, and said she doesn’t expect to hear a full formal proposal from the School Board until sometime in the fall.

“I trust the citizens,” Swift-Kayatta said. “A good, solid well-explained proposal has never had anything to fear” from the voters or council in Cape Elizabeth, Swift-Kayatta said.

And she said she would expect any proposal with strong community support would be approved by the Town Council.

“There’s a very strong tradition and expectation in Maine that school issues have gone before the people,” Swift-Kayatta said.

This is the first time in Cape Elizabeth that a school building project has not been subject to a state-required referendum. And according to Town Manager Michael McGovern, it is also the first time that a committee to draft a school building proposal has been appointed directly by the School Board, rather than by the Town Council in response to a request from the School Board.

So the procedure required is unclear at present, McGovern said, in terms of what the law requires or allows to be possible—binding or non-binding referenda, for example—and what role the School Board itself plays in the building proposal and funding process.

What is clear, McGovern said, is that the Town Council has the final word on whether the money gets spent, unless the council decides to ask the residents for a binding referendum.

In preparation for discussion about costs and budget constraints, the Cape School Board has examined ways to generate revenue to offset some of the expense. The board has decided that the only feasible way to do this would be through co-curricular activity fees.

A board subcommittee, led by board member Jim Rowe, is discussing the subject and will report to the board on what fee structure should be used, if the School Board decides to start charging activity fees.

A 2000-2001 study of activity fees indicated the district could bring in between $30,000 and $60,000 depending on the fee structure and whether the fees applied to middle school and high school students, or just to high school students.