Letter to the editor: School board responds to Camden Planning Board project concerns

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 10:15am

To: Lowrie Sargent, Camden Planning Board Chairman

Dear Chairman Sargent:

I read your letter detailing the concerns that the Camden Planning Board has with the proposed Camden-Rockport Middle School building project.  I appreciate you taking the time to share those concerns with the SAD 28 School Board.  The School Board and the many community members that have participated in developing the new middle school proposal have spent considerable time exploring many options for the future of the middle school and I believe that the planning board’s concerns have been addressed.


Concern 1: Timing of the referendum vote

The school board has set Feb. 10, 2015 as the date for the referendum on the approval of the $28 million bond to fund the middle school project.

In your letter you state: “... the School Board reaffirmed their decision to hold the vote in February despite the significant concerns raised by the Camden and Rockport Select Boards” and “... harsh February weather conditions and a significant number of voters absent from town around this time greatly diminishes public involvement.” 

My recollection is that the concerns raised by the Select Boards were identical to your characterization of the potential for low voter turnout at a February referendum.  I have reviewed the counts of ballots cast for recent winter time special elections in Maine and I have found no evidence that the voter turnout for a winter special election suffers relative to the turnout for the June ballot.  The following examples demonstrate that this is true:

  • February, 2012: 6,284 ballots were cast in the special election for State Senate District 20 which is almost 800 more than the 5,498 ballots cast for the same office in the subsequent June, 2012 primary election.
  • February, 2009: 1,852 ballots were cast in the special election for House Representative District 89, which is over 300 more than the 1,523 ballots cast for the same office in the subsequent June, 2010 primary election.
  • April, 2004: 984 ballots cast in the town of Camden in the special election to approve the purchase of a new property for the Camden-Rockport Elementary School, which is nearly identical to the 975 ballots cast in the town of Camden in the subsequent June 2004 election.

There are other instances where the turnout for a winter special election has equaled or exceeded the turnout for the subsequent June election. 

I believe that this demonstrates that voter participation in any election is driven by interest in the items being voted on and that the time of year does not impact voter turnout.  Also, the winter season does not stop either the town or schools from making plans and developing budgets for the next fiscal year despite that “a significant number of voters absent from the town around this time greatly diminishes public involvement”. 

We live in a place where winter impacts our lifestyle but it does not stop our ability to function as members of the community.

In your letter you state: “Rescheduling the vote until the regular June ballot would allow the voters to be more informed….” The School Board is working hard to maximize community awareness of the middle school project and the date of the referendum.  There have already been articles in the local media, a television news story, several public meetings and a website created for the project. 

In advance of the February referendum there will be additional public meetings, additional coverage in the media and a mailing about the referendum to every residence in Camden and Rockport.  A June vote will not change the quality or amount of the information that is available to the community about the project.

It is necessary to hold the middle school project referendum in February for several reasons.

The most critical of these reasons is that if the vote is held in June then the schedule for the project will be impacted and it will not be possible to open the new building at the start of the school year in the fall of 2017 as proposed.  There are environmental studies that need to occur in the spring, which can happen immediately if the project is approved by the voters in February, with subsequent months of permitting processes that require the environmental  studies.  If the studies are not performed this spring, then it will not be possible to complete the building by the fall of 2017 which will definitely increase the cost of the project by either requiring the use of temporary classroom space or pushing the completion of the building to the fall of 2018.

The School Board has considered the concerns raised by the Select Boards.  The School Board held a special meeting on December 4th to discuss the feedback from the Select Boards. 

Also, SAD 28 School Board members and school administration presented the middle school project to the Rockport Select Board at its Dec. 8 meeting and to the Camden Select Board at its Dec. 16 meeting.  All three meetings included a review of the project timeline and a discussion of the impact of moving the vote to June.  The reasons for the need for a February referendum remain valid and compelling.


Concern 2: Design process and alternatives

Oak Point Associates was hired by the School Board to perform an analysis of the existing middle school facility and propose a plan to update it if necessary.  Oak Point Associates were also selected as the architects to design possible updates to the middle school after the analysis and proposal to modernize the middle school was delivered.

In your letter you state: “it is the Planning Board’s opinion that it is poor policy to have the same architecture/engineering firm both evaluate the current Knowlton Street complex and design the new alternatives.”

I surmise that the Planning Board considers this arrangement poor policy because it is customary for an architect’s fees to be tied to the cost of a project and it is bad idea to allow the architect to determine the size of the project and consequently the size of the architect’s compensation.  

The School Board would also consider this a poor policy to follow. 

Oak Point Associates was hired to do the analysis of the middle school campus following a process that included interviews with past and present clients of the firm as well as site visits to Oak Point designed schools.  They agreed to do the analysis without any promise of future architectural work for the district.  It is only after proving themselves through the process of producing the report on middle school campus that the School Board decided to hire Oak Point as the architect for the middle school project. 

I would urge you to talk to anyone on the building planning committee that worked with Oak Point to do the analysis about how impressed they were by Oak Point.  Additionally, it would be foolish to preemptively exclude the firm that is now the most knowledgeable about the middle school site and the district’s needs from consideration for awarding the contract to design the building.  Oak Point won the job to design the new building by demonstrating that they are really good at what they do.

In your letter you state: “The designers and educators acknowledge that the existing building is about 30% too big but have not seriously considered any adaptive and imaginative reuse of that surplus space”. 

Reuse or repurposing of the surplus space has been considered over the years, as well as part of the analysis of the needs for the middle school campus.  There are just no realistic scenarios where the surplus space can be reused. 

The School Board will not allow any building configuration where an adult population shares common interior and\or exterior spaces with the middle school population.  The School Board also will not fund either the renovation or the operation and maintenance of any space that is not used primarily for the purpose of public education.  Finally, the town of Rockport solicited proposals for new uses for the old Rockport Elementary School facility when the town acquired the property a few years ago. 

The elementary school classrooms were of a similar vintage and construction to the middle school’s current classrooms so any possible viable reuse of the surplus middle school space would have been discovered as part of the proposals submitted to the town.  This is a clear indication that there is no possible imaginative reuse of the surplus middle school space that the School Board should pursue when the old elementary school facility was eventually demolished due to lack of any workable proposal for that site.


Concern 3: Anticipated construction cost

In your letter you state: “What will you do if the costs come in much higher than the architect’s estimates?  What will the taxpayers do?”

There is no basis to suspect that Oak Point’s middle school project estimate is inaccurate.  Oak Point has spent considerable time acquiring a deep and thorough knowledge of the middle school site and the district’s needs for the building.  Oak Point has built other schools in the state of Maine and none of their school building projects have gone over budget.  That said, the project will need to be completed using the funds allocated in the bond being voted on in the referendum. 

If it becomes clear that the project cannot be completed under the $28 million budget, the then project would undergo “value engineering” and the scope of the project would be reduced in some manner so that the project would be completed within budget.


Concern 4: Property tax increase

In you letter you state: “Presently, interest rates are at a 30 year low so if and when interest rates increase, our taxes will also increase even more”.  The $28 million price tag for the new middle school is a substantial obligation for our community to take on.  However, the current state of interest rates is a good thing in terms of borrowing money and it makes this project affordable now.  I would rather go to bond at historically low interest rates, that will most certainly rise eventually, than wait and go to bond after rates have already moved higher.

One of the School Board’s goals for the middle school project is for the new building to become a resource that the entire community can use.  The current building sees almost no use by the community at large.  Once the middle school students leave for the day, the building goes dark. 

If the voters of Camden and Rockport approve the bond for the middle school project this February, then the School Board will need the Camden Planning Board and other interested community members to participate in the process that will shape the new building into a true community resource that everyone can use. 


Matthew Dailey is chairman of the SAD 28 School Board (Camden-Rockport, K-8)

The board also includes John Lewis, Tori Manzi, Kristin Collins, Lynda Chilton, Marcia Dietrich, Gretchen Richards and Faith Vautour