Bar Harbor town councilors balked hard Tuesday night when they were told that a new K-8 school could cost as much as $70 million.
The board met with members of the school department’s project committee, which has been looking into possible long-term fixes for Conners Emerson School. The school dates to the 1950s and has problems ranging from a broken boiler, leaky roofs, and an inefficient design.
Town officials are hoping to come up with a final proposed design that could be presented to voters for approval, possibly as early as June.
Construction of a new building could be more than $50 million, which doesn’t include other necessary costs such as engineering, fees, furnishings, or technology, according to Lisa Sawin, a Portland architect consulting with the school department on the project. And because the costs of construction materials have been rising rapidly the past few years, waiting another 6 months to a year could add another $6 million to the price tag, she said.
Doing some quick math in his head, Councilor Gary Friedmann calculated that the cost of building a new 90,000 square-foot building would be $700 per square foot.
“That’s like, insane,” Friedmann said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
Friedmann said the council has other capital improvement projects it has to consider, and that he just doesn’t think the town could absorb adding as much as $70 million to its outstanding debt.
“You’ve got to come down under $700 per square foot,” Friedmann said. “Something’s got to give here.”
Friedmann and other councilors expressed support for building a new school, which now is split between two buildings. The current buildings have little-to-no insulation in classroom walls, outdated boilers, insufficient air exchange, inadequate water pipes, and leaky roofs that need frequent repair. They also lack gender-neutral bathrooms, adequate program space for one-on-one instruction, and a dedicated gathering space aside from the gym and cafeteria. school officials have said.
On Tuesday, the council was told the school library is closed indefinitely because of poor air quality caused by water leaking into the library walls.
Sarah Gilbert, the town’s finance director, said that the likely impact of taking out a $70 million bond to be repaid over 20 years would result in roughly a $1,000 property tax increase for a local median-priced home, or a 28 percent tax increase.
Councilor Matthew Hochman noted that, because of a recent revaluation in Bar Harbor, property tax bills already have gone up significantly in the past couple of years.
“Mine went up 86 percent,” Hochman said, adding that he thinks a proposal for a $70 million school project would be rejected by voters, who already are facing increased costs for heating, food, and other everyday expenses.
“That number is terrifying,” Hochman said. “I don’t see how we ask residents to absorb another $1,000 on their property taxes.”
Councilor Jill Goldthwait said that working and middle class people already are being priced out of Bar Harbor because of soaring housing prices. Imposing an enormous tax hike would drive more younger families with children out of town, which would have the effect of reducing the local student population and the need for a new school that can house 400 students, she said.
“We’re writing them out of this community, and that feels terrible to me,” she said.
Councilors and members of the project committee noted that the projected cost of nearly $70 million is preliminary, and that members of the building committee will work with Sawin to find ways to reduce the projected cost before it is put before voters.
“This is the starting point,” said Mike Zboray, superintendent of Mount Desert Island’s school system.
Val Peacock, council chair, said that while officials can work to find ways to reduce the project cost, the town has to do something, and the decision the town makes about how to move forward could have an impact that lasts decades.
“Yeah, this is expensive,” Peacock said. “I am not saying the sky’s the limit and that we can’t cut this cost, but I do think we’re up against a place where we don’t have a choice but to replace this [school]. It’s in really bad shape. We’re talking about investing in the future of the most important part of our community, which is our kids.”