Thursday, January 16, 2003

Cape could delay school project

Published in the Current; co-written with Kate Irish Collins

The Cape Town Council is questioning whether a $9.2 million renovation of the high school and Pond Cove School should be delayed until the economy improves.

With the economy tight, and deficits mounting at the state level, schools are expecting a reduction in aid to education.

“This could not come at a worse time financially when we are expecting further reductions in state aid,” Council Finance Chairman Mary Ann Lynch told the Current in an interview.

But Lynch, who is also the council liaison to the school building committee, said there is no question in her mind that the kindergarten should be moved to Pond Cove School.

“We do need to do that at some point,” Lynch said.

“In the end the School Board may be faced with the question of what is more important – the buildings or programs,” Lynch said. “While there is no question of need, the council has to ask: Would it be more responsible to wait awhile?”

The Town Council and School Board are scheduled to hold a joint workshop on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 7:30 p.m., in the new Community Center to discuss the renovation project.

Of the $9.2 million, the School Board proposes to spend $1.1 million for a one-story, five-classroom expansion at Pond Cove and $7.7 million renovating the aging high school. The idea is to move the kindergarten out of the high school and into Pond Cove and renovate the high school, including new science labs, an expanded cafeteria, a new gym floor, new roofing and upgrades to the mechanical and electrical systems.

Next Tuesday’s meeting is the first formal report to the council on the scope and goals of the school building projects.

“The focus of the meeting is going to be on the whys,” said Marie Prager, who is both chairman of the School Board and chairman of the building committee.

The goal of the meeting, Prager said, is to “get the town councilors on board” and to show them that “these projects need to be done.”

Lynch said there is still some time between when the council has to decide whether to fund one or both school projects or whether to send the issue out to referendum.

“We do have some time to try to make the most responsible decision for the town and for the kids,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how the other councilors react and a lot of what may happen will depend on what the School Board asks of us.”

At a School Board meeting held Jan. 14, Prager said she would not address specifics of a timetable with the council next week. “We don’t want to push
them,” she said. However, she added, “in the fall of 2004, we need the kindergartners out of the high school, one way or another. If a building isn’t complete by then, it could mean portable classrooms.”

“We need their support before we take it to the community,” Prager said of the council.

Council Chairman Jack Roberts said in an interview that there is a lot of concern on the part of councilors about just how badly the town is going to be hit with reductions in state aid.

“It would be difficult to take on new debt, but it would be premature to say the project is dead in the water. I think it’s more an issue of timing,” Roberts said.

“The meeting with the School Board is obviously an opportunity for them to present the project to the council. An actual decision is still ahead of us, but
it will be based on the overall need and the consequences if we don’t take action,” Roberts added.

Town Manager Mike McGovern said, “I think there are two questions from the council’s point of view.” One is whether the projects need to be done and the other, he said, is when.

At the council’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, McGovern presented a financial benchmark study of where the town stands in overall spending against 50 other towns that responded to a survey conducted by the Maine Municipal Association.

The study showed that Cape is number one in educational spending and in spending on parks and recreation.

“One of the council’s goals was to benchmark our costs with other communities around the state. The study was an attempt to evaluate areas for possible spending reductions,” McGovern said after the meeting. The study also showed that Cape has among the highest property tax burden on individuals in the state partly because the town has virtually no commercial base.