Thursday, August 22, 2002

School renovation wish list hits $12 million

Published in the Current

After months of anticipating a $5 million to $6 million renovation plan for the high school and Pond Cove School, Cape Elizabeth school officials were surprised to learn last week that the price tag will be closer to $12 million.

At a building committee meeting Aug. 15, the board learned a comprehensive high school renovation could cost as much as $9.2 million, with a Pond Cove expansion slated to add nearly $2.7 million more.

After seeing the dollar figures, School Board Chair and building committee chair Marie Prager said, “I think everyone’s in shock.” The group had been operating under the assumption that the cost would be much lower.

The latest project designs, created by Bob Howe of Portland’s HKTA Architects, include a wide range of options that are likely to be pared significantly.

In an earlier meeting with Howe, Superintendent Tom Forcella and other school representatives had indicated a number of sections of the proposals that would not be part of a final project.

“It seems to me as if everything is included,” Forcella said when he saw the HKTA plans. Howe said the plans were a result of extensive discussions with school faculty and staff, and included ways to meet a “wish list” developed during those discussions.

“We’ve accommodated a lot of the wishes, (but) not all the wishes, ”Howe said. If the costs need to be reduced, he said, that is up to the schools. “As we explained early on, this isn’t going to be an easy process,” he said.

Prager said the building committee and the School Board need to “look at what we really need and what we can live without.”

Town Manager Mike McGovern, present at the meeting, said a new high school could cost as much as $40 million.

Howe agreed, saying, “these renovation costs are rather modest, considering the size of the building.”

Forcella said he would explore the possibility of having school maintenance staff perform some of the work in-house, which would lower labor costs and also reduce administrative expenses.

Reworking the interior
The high school renovation would have two major thrusts: redoing public spaces used by all students and by the community at large, and reconfiguring classroom and administrative space for improved academic and management use.

It would remake the locker rooms, now poorly ventilated and not handicapped-accessible, resurface the gym floor and add new gym bleachers, expand the cafeteria, reconfigure former kindergarten classrooms into high school class space, rearrange the school’s administrative and guidance offices and add at least 100 parking spaces.

Throughout the school, the proposal would upgrade the electrical and smoke detection systems, repaint or re-floor nearly every room and replace the school-wide intercom system by putting a telephone in each classroom.

McGovern said he anticipated there was as much as $1 million in project work that could be done in-house for a cost of closer to $200,000.

A new set of gym bleachers was included in the cost. The new seats would be fixed to the wall, with a motor to roll them out. Forcella said that might be overkill. “We rarely would need the seating that we have,” he said. He suggested Howe look into bleachers Forcella has seen at other schools that roll around the gym and can be arranged in a variety of positions to meet different audience needs.

Also slated for renovation is the school auditorium, which could get new seating, carpeting and lighting.

Another issue is what Howe called a “thrust stage,” a homemade addition to the front of the stage that slants down and toward the audience. It was not a part of the original design of the stage and blocks several large air return vents, limiting the ventilation of the entire auditorium, Howe said.

As much as $1.7 million of the total cost would be for work outside the building, creating new parking spaces, re-grading the hill at the main entrance to the building and providing handicapped access to the track and soccer field.

McGovern suggested scaling that work back significantly, reworking the entrance to the school and paving a couple of dirt areas already used for parking. “You could save a million bucks right there,” he said.

‘Looks like a bargain’
In comparison to the $9.2 million high school, the $2.7 million Pond Cove additions appeared cheap to the group. “The elementary school looks like a bargain,” Forcella said.

A new two-story wing housing classrooms, arts and multi-purpose space would be constructed between the town fire station and the playground.

The primary focus of the addition will be to provide space for the kindergarten classes, which have previously been housed in the high school.

The addition is more straightforward, Howe said, because all of the space and fixtures will be new, and modifications will only be made to the existing building so that the new space connects well. The cost of the new wing will be $2.4 million.

An additional $267,000 would pay for a new art room off the connection corridor between the two major sections of the building. It would also offer a new entryway from the paved courtyard between the Thomas Memorial Library and the school.

The building committee had asked Howe to break out the cost of the art room from the cost of the new wing because the two spaces are not contiguous and would serve substantially different functions.

Setting priorities
A group including Prager, Forcella, School Board finance chair Elaine Moloney and high school administrators is expected to meet in early September to set priorities for the project, in terms of what work to do first, what to phase in over time, and what not to do at all.

Moloney said she wanted to know what would happen if things were cut from what she called “this grand scheme,” and whether there was a chance any of the work might get done in the next 20 years, the projected life of the renovation.

Forcella said no. “If we don’t put it in this plan, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

“This is the time to decide what we can live with,” Prager said, anticipating significant cuts.

McGovern said the middle school and Pond Cove renovation 10 years ago cost $11.7 million. He warned that traffic and parking will be an ongoing issue for the school buildings.

“At some point you’re going to need another exit out of the high school area,” he said.

He also said that though the numbers might look less scary when residents see how much debt the town is paying off each year, the schools will still need to “sell it to the council and sell it to the town.”

Cape town councilors have said in the past that they are likely to send the proposal to a referendum, though state law does not require them to.

In response to a question from Moloney, Howe said “marketing” of the plan should begin in October, when final numbers have been set.

Though the numbers may look large, Prager asked committee members to keep a cool head. “I think we shouldn’t freak out now,” she said.

Howe gave them “everything they want” in the proposal, and the time has come to make changes and cuts to the project.

“There’s a lot more here than we really need,” Prager said. But still, cuts won’t come easily. “This is going to be hard,” she said.