September 20, 2020

For a state that prides itself on a “fix it up, make do, make it last” ethic, Maine’s approach to school construction, renovations and repairs seems like something foisted upon it by an alien culture utterly averse to thrift and common sense. “Let it rot, then throw money at the rubble” seems to be the creed.

That’s why Gov. King’s appointment last summer of a commission to study those policies was so necessary and why the commission’s recommendations, if it’s recent draft report is any indication of the final product due Feb. 1, are so right.

Although almost too arcane, convoluted and just plain nutty for synopsizing, the bottom line of current practice is this: a school must be in an advanced state of decay or bursting at the seams for years before anything is done. Then, what could have been fixed or expanded for a few million is replaced for $15, $20, or in the case of Berwick, $33 million. The UMaine Center for Research and Evaluation estimates that there is some $60 million in urgent health, safety and legal compliance needs in the state’s public schools, and that’s probably lowballing it.

The commission’s foremost recommendations are that the state fund renovation projects, not just new construction and major additions, and that a revolving loan fund of $30 million be established for that purpose. Maine now has a revenue surplus of roughly $200 million — using less than one-sixth to make schools healthy, safe, legal and long-lasting seems like a prudent investment with a guaranteed payback. The commission’s proposal for two bond issues totalling $70 million to boost the renovation fund may be a tougher sell to legislators and the public, but it just may be the price Maine pays for decades of neglect.

The commission also is eyeing reform of the rating system for construction, especially the part that gives extra points to a project that will provide some sort of warm, fuzzy community benefit. The health and safety of schoolchildren and a decent setting for learning should be benefit enough. Also under scrutiny is the requirement that additions must be at least 8,000 square feet to qualify for state funds. That provision should be scrapped — small schools in need of one or two more classrooms are in just as much need as larger schools needing eight.

While safe schools are a statewide concern, routine maintenance and wear-and-tear repairs must remain a local obligation — the commission should make it clear that school districts will not be bailed out for ducking responsibility. Also, the commission should take a hard look at the guideline for the minimum lot size for a school — a medium-sized high school of 700 students now is required to have about 23 acres of usable land, making expansion of an old in-town school often impossible. This forces a new school to the edge of town, creating sprawl, adding to traffic congestion and forcing into abandonment a building whose only crime was that it was too small. An expansive complex of outdoor athletic fields on school grounds is a good thing, but it is also a low-priority luxury. And if a new school is needed, the state should have a standard, easily modified and expandable design on hand. The wheel does not need reinventing.

Present practice is so exasperating that it is not unusual to hear school officials suggest that the state should just butt out completely — let communities keep the money now squandered on school construction and let communities decide when and how to repair, expand or build. The frustration is understandable, but safe and adequate schools should not be limited to towns that can afford them. The basic concept of sharing this responsibility statewide is sound; all it needs is a good dose of common sense. It appears the governor’s commission has a good start on that.

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