Rockport holds emergency meeting on middle school letter

By Louis Bettcher | Jun 05, 2018
Source: LiveStream From left: Rockport Selectmen Doug Cole, Ken McKinley, Owen Casas and Mark Kelley attend a meeting June 5.

Rockport — Following an emergency meeting June 5, the Rockport Select Board voted to issue a public statement about the proposed School Administrative District 28 middle school project.

 

Selectmen Doug Cole, Owen Casas and Mark Kelley voted in favor, and Chairman Ken McKinley voted against issuing the statement.

 

The previous evening, the Select Board began organizing the emergency meeting to determine whether members would sign a statement drafted by Casas. An agenda for the meeting was sent to The Camden Herald at approximately 9 p.m., 13 hours before the 10 a.m. meeting June 5.

 

Casas' letter, which scrutinized a funding strategy proposed by the district to close a $5.8 million gap in construction costs for the Knowlton Street facility, was revised by the Select Board and members of the SAD 28 School Board over the course of the three-hour meeting before being voted on.

 

The statement comes in advance of a June 11 SAD 28 meeting. The meeting will seek voter approval to appropriate funds to the district's Capital Reserve account and accept and use bond premiums for the construction of the new Camden-Rockport Middle School.

 

Casas had presented a draft copy of the letter to the Select Board and members of the School Board prior to the meeting. In the original version of the document, Casas wrote on behalf of both Rockport and Camden select boards. The document now only includes the Rockport board.

 

McKinley opened the meeting by reviewing aspects of the town charter as they relate to the powers and duties of the Select Board. He expressed concern about moving forward with a statement on a School Board matter:

 

"It is the duty of the Select Board to represent the will of the people, provide leadership and oversight ... it allows us to talk about the school situation, but doesn't give us oversight over School Board," said McKinley.

 

"I'm not opposed to the new middle school, and I voted in favor of last year's [$25.2 million] bond...I have concerns around additional spending to close the gap due to increased construction costs and interest rates, and the quickness with which this package was put together," said Casas.

 

Cole and Kelley said they were in favor of issuing a statement advising voters of the upcoming June 11 meeting, and the funding strategy.

 

"There are certain things that citizens should expect from us: public safety, infrastructure and good schools ... I feel like the school budget is starting to suck air out of other projects we want to do," said Cole.

 

"I think we should look out for the best interest of taxpayers; although a majority of them voted in favor of the school, some of them are still trying to make ends meet," said Kelley.

 

During a period of public comment, members of the School Board expressed concerns over the haste with which the meeting had been organized, and how a statement phrased as Casas' was would sway voters.

 

"There is no future plan for this [middle school] project without the [funding] option the School Board is pursuing. In fact, there is no long-term plan for the project without this," said Marcia Dietrich.

"I think you've really isolated a lot of folks who work, and were unable to attend this meeting. I appreciate it being LiveStreamed, but many of them can't be here to participate and advocate ... .I wish I had heard any of your concerns [earlier]: none of you have reached out to me as Select Board members," said Carole Gartley.

"We scrambled together to be here today. We will never be able to build this building at this cost again. We've been above-board and transparent. We really are community members and it's unfortunate to think that the Select Board is coming for the School Board," continued Gartley.

The Select Board opened the discussion and review of Casas' statement to members of the School Board; Gartley, Peter Orne and Business Manager Cathy Murphy sat at a table with microphones and also led the Select Board through another presentation of the funding strategy (a similar presentation had been made by the School Board May 29).

As the letter was reviewed, statements made originally by Casas were revised because they were determined by members of both boards to be either inaccurate or irrelevant. Over the course of the meeting, up to 40 people at a time were logged into the "Chat" function of the town's LiveStream video service, watching the meeting and commenting.

"I disagree with the Rockport Select Board issuing a statement on this. I think it will only create confusion. I also don't feel that it will represent the Rockport voters," said Kelly Hokkanen.

 

"I’m glad to see the democratic process working to a degree through this meeting. The letter as written was extremely biased and inflammatory," said Heidi Karod, while other members of the public expressed concern over the lack of notice for the meeting.

 

Though not at the meeting, which was held in the Geoffrey C. Parker Room of the Rockport Opera House, Superintendent Maria Libby was also on the Livestream chat feed, offering replies and corrections as statements were made.

 

As the statement continued to be revised, Orne said he would hope to see a joint letter that was written by both the Camden and Rockport select boards and the School Board, urging the public to attend the June 11 meeting and vote.

 

"My intent was to try and focus more on the impact to taxpayers. I primarily want folks to know there were budgeted monies that were budgeted for other uses, and those monies have been moved to pay for this project and extend the bond by a year," said Casas. He added that he appreciated the fact that the School Board was approaching the public to seek their approval for a vote on funding.

 

"I guess that really underpins this whole thing, that you guys are doing this out of the goodness of your own heart," said Casas.

 

"We're doing it out of the fact that it's the right thing to do, and the proper methodology. I'm incredibly impressed with how [district officials] have done this, from a financial and fiscal standpoint. It's been an incredible thing to watch," said Orne.

 

Over the course of the meeting, dozens of revisions and deletions were made to portions of the original statement. Prior to voting on the motion for the Rockport Select Board to issue a revised statement to the local media, Gartley asked if the document could be reread in its entirety.

 

Although Kelley protested that a call to vote had already been made, McKinley said he wasn't finished discussing the matter and read the statement. In rereading it, places where "Camden" was used, and phrases that implied that both select boards were included, were changed. McKinley offered the following comment before the 3-1 vote was taken.

 

"Yes, the project came in over budget, and we have to raise some funds... It's important for voters to know that if this doesn't come through and we have to wait a couple of years, we're going to get less building for it and it would cost more money. I want that to be understood, and that the board has done the best they could in this situation," said McKinley.

 

The SAD 28 district warrant meeting will be held June 11 at 6 p.m. in the Camden-Rockport Middle School gymnasium on Knowlton Street in Camden.

The official statement by the Rockport Select Board follows below:

At a special MSAD 28 District meeting on June 11th, we will have decisions to make regarding the future of our middle school and impact to taxpayers. One of those decisions is how to best deal with the new middle school project that recently came back from bid 26% ($5.8 million) over budget. Regardless of how individual members of the Rockport Select Board voted on the original bond, all of us support a robust educational experience for the youth in our community.

The proposed changes include:

A ‘bond premium’ of up to $3 million- This function comes with higher interest rates, at taxpayer expense. Over the life of the bond, (21 years) these additional interest payments could exceed $1 million.

Deferment of the first principal payment- This will take the first principal payment of $1.3 million and use those funds toward construction rather than paying down the debt. This will also extend the 20 year bond by an additional year.

Draw down the Capital Reserve Fund- This $1.4 million is already appropriated for issues that might arise with BOTH the Middle and Elementary Schools. Some funds ($1.1 million) in this Reserve were put aside specifically for the Middle School project over the last three years by deferring some maintenance. The remaining $300,000 is for unforeseen issues and expenses, not new construction. If the full amount is approved and spent on the Middle School project, only $175K will remain in the fund, an amount that the MSAD 28 Business Manager has stated is “a concern” and has advised the school board to take this into consideration when determining the correct use of value engineering and other funding sources.

Fund Balance- These are non-expended funds from previous budgets that can either be used to reduce taxes or be designated for other projects. Rather than use these funds for either of these purposes, The District plans to expend a portion of these funds ($100K) toward the Middle School construction.

Value Engineering- This is a term for finding non-essential aspects of the project and cutting them out to reduce the overall cost of construction. Although a possible cut of $2.8 million has been discussed, the actual amount may be less.

Any individual aspect of this package, taken by itself, might be considered “common.” That said, bundling these aspects together, especially to the degree of which is being proposed, could be considered uncommon. When taken as a whole, this overall proposal could place an additional burden on our taxpayers. This is in addition to the burden we have assumed by passing a bond of $25.2 million for new school construction.

All of us want to see a successful and positive resolution to the situation we find ourselves in. Some of us on the Select Board have young children in the school district that will be the first class to use the new school; however, we feel that the approach that the District has taken to resolve this issue is complicated.

We encourage all voters in Camden and Rockport to review the discussions had by the School Board and the Select Board so they can make up their own minds and join us for the District meeting and vote on June 11 at 6 p.m. in the Camden Rockport Middle School gymnasium.

Below are links to the recent news articles and school board meetings where these aspects are discussed more thoroughly. We appreciate that the District has been extremely transparent in their approach.

https://knox.villagesoup.com/p/middle-school-construction-bids-millions-over-budget/1750653

https://knox.villagesoup.com/p/camden-rockport-middle-school-information-sheet-and-talking-points/1751294

https://knox.villagesoup.com/p/school-officials-work-to-close-5-8-million-shortfall/1752967

Video Links:

May 21, 2018 – School board met to discuss options moving forward

https://youtu.be/wEGjfo0ulgo

May 29, 2018 – Carole Gartley and Cathy Murphy present changes to the Middle School Project to Rockport Select Board (discussion starts at minute 52): https://livestream.com/Rockportmaine/events/8200758

May 30, 2018 – School Board discusses special June 11 District Budget meeting

https://youtu.be/FY5AEwun5F8

June 5, 2018 – Rockport Select Board and School Board Representatives

Select Board Meeting/Middle School Project.

Editor's note: The above statement was edited to remove some links.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Barry Douglas Morse | Jun 06, 2018 13:01

Mary, the borrowed money (the bonds) will be repaid through property taxes over the next 20-or-so years.

While I understand how the district got here and appreciate the dedication of the school board to forge a path forward, they're asking taxpayers to sign on to contract changes without due diligence.

While I am sympathetic to the cause, this is not a firefight.  A hastily arranged meeting isn't the right forum to be approving changes that will affect property taxes for the next 20 years.

Taxpayers need to see a detailed cost accounting and the expected dollar impact on annual property taxes for an average homeowner.



Posted by: Steven D Bryant | Jun 06, 2018 12:06

Tap the "Bisbee Fund" , or is that completely off limits?????



Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 05, 2018 16:35

How much money from the State and how much money from the Towns are funded?



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