Jim and Maggi Kovacs (at left) listen to a discussion about Regional School Unit 24 officials' plan to bring a proposal to purchase the district's central offices back to voters this fall. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

RSU 24 board OKs public vote on buying office

GOULDSBORO — The Regional School Unit 24 board voted unanimously Tuesday to send the issue of buying district offices back to a public ballot in November, revisiting a referendum question that was voted down last year.

Board members invited selectmen from towns in the district to give input before making their decision which, they said, wasn’t taken lightly. Representatives from Steuben, Sorrento and Gouldsboro attended the meeting at the Peninsula School to voice their support for the plan.

Members of the public also came to voice their concerns over the plan, saying they felt the board wasn’t respecting the will of voters after last year’s referendum.

The question that will be sent to voters is whether the school district should purchase the building that currently houses the district offices off of Route 1 in Sullivan. The facility is currently leased from the firm that built the building, Barbee Construction.

The plan would ask taxpayers to purchase the building from Barbee Construction for $1.218 million through a bond, which would be paid over the course of 15 years. The Maine Municipal Bond Bank estimated to school officials that annual payments would be about $113,320, down from the current $120,000 paid to Barbee now.

Under the current lease contract, the annual payment to Barbee is set to go up annually for five years by 2 percent or by the Consumer Price Index, whichever is greater.

According to school district estimates, the plan would save district taxpayers more than $600,000 over the 15 years.

After the 15-year bond period, the district would owe no money on the property, meaning it would save at least $100,000 each year in payments and could sell the structure at any time.

The question was posed to voters last year during the presidential election and was struck down. Opponents of the re-vote said the board should respect the will of the voters.

During Tuesday’s discussion, selectmen and school board members said they’ve been approached by community members who didn’t understand what they were voting for during last year’s referendum. Some officials think that was because the language of the ballot question gave the wrong impression that the district would be spending more than one million dollars instead of saving money.

“It’s a terribly worded question,” said Roger Bowen, a selectman from Gouldsboro, during the meeting. “Now, I know that it’s legally strong, but it’s politically weak … it may be what lawyers want but I don’t think it’s what voters want.”

Bowen said without a tweak to the question’s language that highlights the long-term savings of the plan, he thinks it would fail in a public referendum.

RSU 24 Business Manager David Bridgham explained that he and Superintendent Michael Eastman had worked with the district’s bond lawyer to structure the question as clearly as they could without referencing savings. Lawyers advised school officials that if the referendum language were to influence voters, the district could be sued.

Board members briefly discussed having the district attempt to change the wording of the question, but their next meeting will fall too late for the ballot question deadline. The board decided to focus on educating the public about the savings involved with purchasing the building.

Rob Wilpan, a selectman from Sorrento, said in an interview he had spent time talking to friends in the past year, and realized they voted against the measure last November because they thought it would cost more money to buy the building.

He wrote a letter in April to selectmen from all the towns in the district urging a re-vote.

“It makes economic sense,” he said. “We stand to save significant money each year. The building’s well built; it’s economical to run.”

Wilpan said the wording of last year’s referendum didn’t give voters enough information to make an informed choice.

Verne Campbell, a resident who attended the meeting, stood up during the discussion to say he thought the school board wasn’t respecting the voters’ wishes.

“It’s just my opinion, but we had a vote, the towns voted on it,” Campbell said. “Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t do their homework, but the voted carried and they said no.”

“The reason this has been brought back up is because we were asked by a number of the select boards of our constituent towns to revisit it because they were interested in realizing the cost savings,” said board member Jeff Alley. “They realize how much their respective towns stood to save as a result of this.”

Alley said the board met shortly after the vote last year and decided to wait a few years before revisiting the issue, but, after hearing from officials in member towns, decided to bring it back.

Alden Bunker of Hancock questioned buying a building he thought wasn’t worth the money.

“I’m not an appraiser, so I can’t speak to whether it’s worth $1.2 million or not,” Eastman said in response to Bunker. “What I can say as superintendent, though, is operating a business, which is what we’re in the process of here, it’s doable and it makes much more sense to have everybody right there.”

Alley said no other facility within the RSU meets the district’s needs. He said buying the building made more sense in the long term than leasing.

“I’d rather take the $665,000 and give it to students than I would to Mr. Barbee or Mr. Bunker or any other property owner,” Alley said.

The vote will be held on Nov. 7.

Jack Dodson has worked for The Ellsworth American since mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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