2017-04-06 / News

Biddeford looks to state to renovate schools

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Building renovation applications for the Biddeford Center of Technology and JFK Memorial School buildings have been approved by the school committee and applications will be sent to the Department of Education in hopes of final approval.

Superintendent Jeremy Ray began writing the 30-page application to the Maine Department of Education in October 2016 in pursuit of funds for capital improvement projects from the state for both buildings. The applications will now go to the Department of Education, where they will be processed and considered. The department requires municipalities have applications submitted to and approved by their school boards before they will consider them. There will be about a nine- to 12-month period for the department to process the applications.

“The unanimous vote signals that the school board strongly endorses the city’s application for funding of improvements,” Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said. “The board has long felt that there needs to be upgrades to both facilities, as both are old. JFK was built in the 1960s. The Center of Technology was built in the 1970s. With changing programming, technology, state requirements, etc., there are needs that should be met. Coupled with infrastructure issues, it seems obviously appropriate that the state should consider expending dollars to repair the buildings.”

Ray said most of the application for the Center of Technology building is about space and programming needs. He said in the future he’d like to see two programs added for the building, including cosmetology and heavy equipment programs, but opportunity to expand programming is limited until renovations are administered. The size of the shop spaces are much smaller than is recommended by the Department of Education, he said.

“We’ve been able to do something there to spruce it up a bit,” Ray said, “but the whole thing needs major work.”

The principal issue with the JFK building relates to age, Ray said. The building dates back to the 1960s, and he said the mechanical system is in need of replacement, and there are also space issues.

Both buildings are experiencing problems with handicap requirements and safety codes, Ray said.

Renovations for the JFK building are estimated to be between $7 and $10 million, Ray said. Center of Technology costs are estimated to be about $20 million.

“You’re talking about major dollars here,” he said.

Because of the significance of the expenses, Ray said he wanted to pursue the Department of Education program before looking at other options.

“Those are costly renovations and the state has a program that offers state funding for buildings, like Biddeford Middle School,” he said, referring to when the state assisted in funding the middle school about 10 years ago. “Before we look at local options we must exhaust any state options. We’ve known for a while there are challenges with both buildings. If you begin to look at what the future looks like with capital improvements, you need to look at opportunities.”

Casavant pointed to Biddeford High School as the last time a similar need for building improvements arose. Taxpayers absorbed all costs of renovation, he said, because there was no funding from the state and because the city was not on any list for possible upgrades by the state. This resulted in a tax increase for residents, or $216 for every $200,000 of property valuation, which Biddeford is still paying for, he said. Residents approved the renovations in a referendum 4,573 to 2,686.

Ray said state officials will visit the buildings with a school construction team sometime between summer and January of next year.

The Department of Education selects schools for capital improvement projects on a scoring basis, Ray said. Associates from the department go to school buildings to assess and evaluate them, using various criteria that are used to determine whether they’ll select the building for funding. Some of the criteria is based on needs related to health and safety, energy and water conservation and structural issues unrelated to health and safety such as windows, doors or waste disposal systems.

Ray said he’s not sure what the likelihood is of Biddeford buildings being selected.

“I can’t say whether Biddeford will be likely because of other conditions of other buildings in Maine,” he said.

He said even if the buildings are approved for capital improvement funding, the school department is looking at a three- to six-year process because the department will still need to finalize architecture and design plans, he said.

If approved, the Department of Education could cover the majority of costs for renovations, Ray said, but because the process is in its initial phase and because Biddeford will have options to fund parts of renovations that the department wouldn’t cover, potential costs to taxpayers are undetermined.

“Certainly locals have options. Ten years ago, when they built the middle school, there was a bunch of costs the state covered, but there were additions people wanted that went to taxpayers,” he said.

School board member Tony Michaud addressed concerns about the costs of renovations and what effect it will have on the community.

“This is going to be a major expense,” Michaud said. “If the application fails, we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Ray echoed a similar sentiment.

“There are a lot of communities that want and don’t want bond issues,” he said. “If we’re unsuccessful (with the applications), we’ve got to talk about, ‘What are we going to do?’”

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