The middle matters

By Maria Libby | Mar 11, 2017

As hopefully you know, there is a public forum next week at the Rockport Opera House meeting space (downstairs) to give input into the design and aesthetics of the new middle school building that will go on the ballot this June.

The first public input session was held on Monday of this week. The one in Rockport will be March 16, at 7 p.m. The middle school project was initially defeated at the polls in February 2015. The school board decided to regroup, revision, and attempt to bring a project back to voters again.

The community needs to address the issues facing the middle school facility. The issue is this: the current middle school facility is aged and failing. Many of its systems are antiquated, it is not up to current code, it needs major structural work, and it doesn’t function well as a singular educational facility. It is a patchwork of the old middle school and the old high school — it was never designed to be one school. Most of the building is between 60 and 90 years old.

A committee appointed by the board spent many months talking to various groups and individuals in our community about three potential options to address the issue (new, renovate, patch). From all of those conversations, it became clear that once people understood the situation, nearly everyone agreed that building a new school was the most cost-effective decision for our community. The cost of simply repairing the building over the next 20 years was 80 percent of the cost of building new and at the end of that time we’d still need a new building. The yearly operating costs of a new building will be significantly less (approximately 25 percent) than we currently spend.

We cannot push this decision down the road. Every year we wait, both construction costs and interest rates are going up, and on a project this size, those factors make a huge difference. The state is expecting a surge in school construction in the next several years that will drive up demand for contractors and costs — it will behoove us to go out to bid slightly ahead of the surge. Truly it is time to act now. That is why the vote will be on the June ballot.

The committee is currently working in the design phase of the project. We know that having a middle school that fits into the neighborhood is very important. We are lucky in many ways to have a school in the downtown area that is essentially in a residential neighborhood. It will enable us to hang on to age old traditions, such as walking to school, while building a facility that is accessible to the community and updated to meet current and future educational needs. Because of its location, we recognize that aesthetics are critically important. That is why we are currently seeking community input.

At the meeting next week, we will share a current idea for the front of the building that faces Knowlton Street. We will ask for participant reactions and suggestions. Residents of our two towns will also have a chance to ask any other questions they may have about the project. We plan to livestream the event, so even those at home watching can provide input.

The educational benefits of this project to our middle school students are numerous. Whenever you walk into the middle school today, you are likely to see groups of students working together on hallway floors and in stairwells. In a new school we will have appropriate spaces to collaborate. On that walk through the middle school, you would also see nearly half of every grade packed into the old “mini-gym” for band — a space that doesn’t have proper ventilation, to say nothing about proper acoustics. The former band room was too small. In a new school our band and chorus rooms will be sized to house the extremely high levels of participation we have in our school. That level of participation speaks volumes about the engagement of our students, and we know that pays dividends down the road toward success. When you finally reach the far end of the building on that walking tour, you could stand in a classroom, look through the cement block wall, and see daylight outside through the cracks appearing. The building is literally sinking and the walls are cracking. A community member who just toured the building noted how “dark and depressing” the school was due to limited daylight. We have an opportunity to provide a high-functioning educational space for our middle school students that will have positive ripple effects throughout the communities of Camden and Rockport.

We know a new middle school will increase taxes. We know that schools account for the lion’s share of the real estate tax bill. Education costs money, despite the fact that we have an incredibly lean organization by any standard. Providing appropriate facilities is a significant part of that cost. We also understand that we have built two other new schools in the past two decades and we are carrying that debt. Waiting on the middle school would be more painful due to rising costs. The school system has saved approximately $1.1 million over the past several years in its Capital Reserve Fund to help offset the cost. We budgeted for what is needed to be repaired at the middle school, but only did the essentials, not wanting to put money into a building that may get torn down in the next couple of years. We put the unspent money into a reserve fund that would either help offset the cost of a new school or provide a large sum to immediately put into repairs should the vote not pass.

It is my hope that the community rises up and supports this vote in June. I genuinely believe it will cost the community significantly less to do this now than to wait even five years. I have no doubt it is a great investment for our future — in our students, in our local economy, and in the overall health and appeal of our community.

We want to put a school on the ballot in June that the community feels good about. Please give us your input either at the upcoming community forum, through our webpag, http://crmsmiddlematters.info/,, or by contacting my office directly at 236-3358. The middle matters!

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