Thursday, November 17, 2005

Editorial: Rebuilding trust

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Nov 17, 2005): Like it or not, the Scarborough schools have a credibility problem when it comes to construction. While early claims that large portions of the high school renovation project were substandard have been dismissed, some problems linger, most notably a section of foundation that is cracked to an unknown degree.

Two other problems also remain in the latest version of an outside engineer’s review of the project, both of which relate to securing vertical support columns to the ground. As a result, the engineer, as we read on Page 1, has reiterated the suggestion that the schools and the construction companies arrange to purchase some type of long-term insurance policy to cover possible failure of the building’s performance down the road.

They should do just that – but the schools should not have to pay anything. If there is any fault, it is the responsibility of the workers who did the job, and their employers. If the schools failed to properly supervise the work – itself a questionable assertion – that still does not excuse shoddy workmanship.

The companies should warrant their work is good, and stand behind it, in a formal and legally binding statement to the building’s owners, the people of Scarborough. That is the long-term insurance policy taxpayers need and deserve.

But as a larger result of this situation, the Scarborough Town Council is moving to take over supervision of school building projects, with several councilors – not just Jeff Messer and Robert Patch, who raised concerns about the high school – saying there needs to be better supervision in the future, and earlier public airing of any possible problems.

The high school project turned into a political dispute, between councilors’ assertions of widespread wrongdoing and school officials’ denial that anything wrong ever happened. Neither was true, and the wrangling was bad for the community, the taxpayers and the schools.

If there are problems with a project, they should be brought to light professionally – without personal attacks. They should be investigated seriously and comprehensively, with the focus on getting value for the taxpayers’ millions, rather than advancing or protecting anyone’s personal or political agendas.

The Scarborough High School project is a $27 million endeavor paid for entirely by the residents of Scarborough, who are about to get asked for as much as $54 million more for an expanded middle school and a new intermediate school.

Several councilors appear to believe that the oversight of the next project needs to be better, and they are right. Involving more people earlier will prevent the political wrangling, and will also remove the opportunity for the councilors to be accused of “meddling” with school business. The quality of a public building used to educate students is everyone’s business.

It is not an unusual move for councils to appoint school building committees – it has happened in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland in very recent years, for Cape’s work on the high school and Pond Cove Elementary School, and for South Portland’s city-wide elementary school renovation and expansion work. A new city-wide committee in South Portland is investigating options for the middle and high schools there.

In neither of those communities was the council-appointed committee a cause for acrimony or political gamesmanship, and Scarborough should follow their leads.

Making a political football out of every step of this process will bring taxpayer exhaustion, possible voter rejection and neglect of the proper focus for all involved: How to balance the needs of the students with the needs of the town as a whole.

Not neighborly

Last week, a group of people gathered outside the cottage where convicted kidnapper Norman Dickinson is living, and yelled at him so that he was afraid and called police for help.

The perpetrators’ actions are indefensibly offensive, and they are no better than criminals for violating his right to live without fear.

Dickinson is a convicted felon, and was imprisoned for his crimes, which happened in 1989. About eight years ago he wrote to a judge, saying he would commit more crimes if he were released, and called himself a “time bomb.” But a lot of time has passed.

As we learn on Page 1, state corrections officials and local police believe Dickinson is not a serious threat – and are keeping a close eye on him nonetheless.

Neighbors are within their rights to remain vigilant, and to keep their eyes open for signs of danger. The question of where released prisoners should live is an important one that demands we provide real rehabilitation in our prisons and social support in our communities – not a group of yelling people in the street.

The people who participated in this activity should be ashamed of themselves, and those who watched from behind their curtains and did nothing should be too.

Jeff Inglis, editor