Superintendent counters Select Board questions about plan to build middle school

By Susan Mustapich | Jun 07, 2018
Photo by: Susan Mustapich SAD 28 School Superintendent Maria Libby, left, countered a June 5 statement issued by four members of the Camden Select Board. Board members from left, are Alison McKellar, Bob Falciani, John French, Marc Ratner and Jenna Looker (present, but not pictured).

CAMDEN — The school superintendent's annual "State of Education" presentation to the Select Board June 5 contained an add-on this year -- a point-by-point rebuttal to issues outlined in a Select Board letter issued earlier that day, questioning SAD 28's plan to build a new middle school, despite the low bid coming in at 26 percent over budget.

On May 22, the low bid for the CRMS construction project came in from Ledgewood Construction at $28 million, approximately $6 million over budget.

The Select Board letter was issued by Bob Falciani, John French, Jenna Lookner and Alison McKellar. Board member Marc Ratner wrote his own statement in support of SAD 28's plans to reduce the cost of the construction by up to 10 percent, and to restructure funding to close the budget gap.

The letter signed by the four board members stated that the CRMS project is not eligible for state funding due to the superior condition and amenities of the school. SAD 28 Superintendent Maria Libby stated that is not the reason. She stated only a handful of about 50 school construction requests are funded; and that points are given to existing schools that are missing key features such as cafeterias and gymnasiums. Libby points out that the new Mid-Coast School of Technology is being built without state funding.

Select Board members cited confusion over whether a yes vote on the June 12 school budget referendum at the polls is a vote on the district's operating budget or a vote on the school construction project that is millions over budget.

Libby countered that SAD 28 is not asking voters to authorize an additional $6 million at the polls June 12 to spend on middle school construction. The only operating budget change SAD 28 is asking for is to move $1.3 million, the first bond payment, from debt to capital reserves, so the money can be used to build the school.

While Select Board members contend that SAD 28's plan to use a $3 million bond premium to cover the construction budget gap is not "typical" and "pushes the limits of what voters agreed to," Libby counters that bond premiums are common. She said the $25 million MCST construction bond also issued a $2 million premium, and RSU 13's $13 million construction and renovation bond issued a $1 million premium.

When French asked Libby "how do you authorize a $3 million bond without going to voters," Libby supplied a response that surprised people in the room. She said that by state law, school districts can issue bonds without voter approval, up to the amount of 1 percent of the valuation of their districts, adding "but we didn't want to do anything without getting voter approval."

Falciani quickly calculated that based on the property valuations of Camden and Rockport, SAD 28 could have issued the entire $25 million school construction bond without going to voters. Camden's valuation for property tax purposes is $1.28 billion and Rockport's valuation is $936.5 million. One person in the back of the room said the state law should be changed.

Libby disagreed with the Select Board statement that using $1.1 million in the SAD 28 capital reserve fund for school construction means more money will need to be raised for maintenance costs in the future. She said that the $1.1 million was originally targeted for CRMS. She said that leaving $175,000 in capital reserves "is a great place to start in 2019-20" and that funds will continue to be budgeted for capital reserves each year in the future, and the fund will be replenished.

Following Libby's presentation, McKellar and French praised the SAD 28 Board for its years of work planning to build a new middle school, while continuing to question the details.

French, who was attending his last Select Board meeting before retiring from the board after 21 years of service, told Libby it was a pleasure to work with her over the years. Regarding a new CRMS building, he said, "Everyone has done a wonderful job. We all want to see a new building." He told Libby that voters have to understand the changes SAD 28 is making to the budget. He cited voter confusion about the new financial plan to close the construction budget gap, and asked Libby if she thought voters understood it.

McKellar said, "I don't deny you are doing the best you can." She said she could not find the plan to finance the construction on the school's website.

She believes people are afraid of criticizing the school board. She voted no on the first bond proposal in 2015 for a new middle school and renovation of the MET building into SAD 28 administrative offices. She characterized herself as always wanting to repair before buying new things. She said that she and a lot of others who voted yes on the 2017 bond proposal to build the new school "were right on the edge. It was a stretch." She said that "when things start to change, it's enough to push them back to the other side."

She called for trying to break down the school-versus-town mentality.

Falciani said that he does not fault what the school board is trying to do, but is getting comments from individuals who are "extremely confused" about the plan. He said this is why votes are sent to referendum, with a long lead time and education process.

He does not believe that the $6 million gap between the district's construction budget, and the bid, is due to cost increases "in the past four months. It's been predicted for about year," he said. He said the district has received bad advice, and he believes the building "has about a 60 percent chance of coming in at what you say it will cost."

He is concerned about cost overruns while construction is underway, and said the 5 percent contingency is not enough. He expects cost overruns could be as high as 18 percent. He said current conditions in the construction market cause stress, increasing rework and lowering quality. He asked Libby to "face what this is really going to cost."

SAD 28 board member Carole Gartley said the construction project would be overseen by many, including the board and committees, to keep it within the budget. She characterized the Select Board letter as misleading.

Lookner praised the additional information and clarifications Libby brought to the Select Board.

Ratner reiterated his praise for the school board and the project. He said his number one priority is education. "The education system we have in this area is precious," he said.

Will Gartley, who is chairman of the CRMS building committee, said decisions need to be made quickly so that Ledgewood Construction can lock in its subcontracts, and prevent further cost increases.

Libby reiterated several times that the school district is not raising an additional $6 million for the construction project, that is is reducing costs of the project, while planning to close the budget gap.

In her presentation on the SAD 28 and CSD districts, she depicted two well-run districts. Over the past 10 years, the average increase to taxpayers for the CSD (high school) has averaged 2.4 percent. Over the past nine years, the average increase to taxpayers for SAD 28 has been 1.7 percent, she said.

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