Town Council Gets First Look at School Options and Costs, Public Input Invited
BAR HARBOR—The Conners Emerson School boiler has failed this year. Again. The school’s library is currently closed. “Biologicals” were found in the library’s wall. The wall has pulled an inch away from the foundation and the warm fall temperatures have created dampness there.
“It’s just another area of the school where we’ve had multiple attempts of fixing or making due,” Principal Heather Webster said during the Conners Emerson School Building Project update to the Bar Harbor Town Council.
An Emerson wall had to be dug out and trenched for a $150,000 fix, but on rainy days, water still infiltrates the wall and building.
Those were just a few of the building issues that the committee presented to the Bar Harbor Town Council on Tuesday night as the town and committee grapple over what to do with the aging, broken school and its students. The project was presented by Lisa Sawin, a principal at the Maine-based Harriman, a multidisciplinary architectural and engineering firm.
The cost of the project, which if approved by voters as is, could increase the median property owner’s yearly property tax bill by $1,000. A price that gave many councilors “sticker shock.”
Construction cost is what it takes to build the building. Project costs includes fees, furniture, and other costs. The difference between a renovation and new build is called the delta.
“A lot of the building needs to be gutted and redone,” Sawin said. That gutting includes the school’s roof, the electrical systems, and the mechanicals.
School Superintendent Michael Zboray said the cost for the school’s replacement was a starting point that shows what is optimal for the students and the community. There is an approximate $2 million difference in cost between rebuild and a renovation. There is also a cost to doing nothing.
Council Chair Valerie Peacock said when it comes to budgets, people talk about schools and their needs being the dream for the community, but when it’s not part of the budget conversations, the school and its students, staff, and teachers are called the heart of the community.
She said that what they were talking about is investing in the future. The town would never say that they weren’t going to have roads or electricity because of the cost.
“Our taxes and our budget show what we value in the community,” Peacock said. “We can’t not build this school.” She stressed that she was not saying to be reckless in spending or that they shouldn’t bring the cost down.
Zboray said he’s spent 16 years in the Conners Emerson Building and that there’s water infiltration, air quality issues for the kindergarten, and cracks in the foundation by the library. There are also space and safety issues.
Vice Chair Matthew Hochman said he believes the school needs to be replaced, but a lot of homeowners had a big property tax increase last year. That increase stems from a property revaluation and the passing of an infrastructure bond. There is also a loss of cruise ship funds this upcoming year due to the cap on daily disembarkations passed by voters this November. Each disembarking passenger pays a fee to the town. With less passengers and the same fee rate, there will be less money coming into the town for cruise ships.
“I worry about selling that number to our residents,” Hochman said and asked about ways to raise money via grants and fundraising. He said he 100% stands behind the school project, but the cost was staggering.
“People already can’t find affordable housing and we’re going to drive the cost up” even more, he said.
“At the end of the day, how do we pay for that?” Councilor Joe Minutolo said and added that he wouldn’t be surprised if the voters didn’t pass the bond in June. Any bond to rebuild or renovate the aging school must be passed by Bar Harbor voters.
Building Committee member Kristi Losquadro said part of the problem is whether or not the school can last the five years it will take to build a replacement. If voters don’t support the project, where will the 300 Bar Harbor students go?
Councilor Erin Cough said, “We’re talking about a bond for a school that is hands-down needed.” She added that how that bond gets spent and how that school gets built still has some flexibility.
There is also a cost to waiting. Just waiting six to 12 months to move forward with a new build is estimated to cost over $6 million over 30 years. Since 2020 (just 2.5 years), the project cost has increased by $6 million.
Losquardo said that now that they have a cost, there is a fundraising committee that can now try to solicit donations.
Goldthwait said they are writing the average person out of the community, which feels terrible to her.
*All images are from the Harriman presentation and are drafts.
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