The school board for Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 voted 7-3 Wednesday evening to look at a proposal to renovate the Messalonskee High School athletic complex again at its next meeting, on Aug. 9, effectively postponing a decision on it.

Board member Andrew Cook, of Rome, proposed letting school superintendent Carl Gartley take time to organize a five-year capital plan that would include the athletic complex renovations as well as facilities upgrades and fire safety work. Cook said the district should prioritize the work and potentially seek a lump sum bond for all of the projects.

Voters in all five towns that belong to RSU 18 — Rome, Belgrade, Sidney, China and Oakland — would vote on the bond in November.

Board member Karen Hatch Gagne, of Sidney, said if they sought a bond for just the track project, they could “kiss another bond goodbye for at least another decade,” as residents would be hesitant to take on more debt.

The board discussed the $3.9 million track and field project, which would be paid for with a bond. Board member Tom Burton changed the bond amount to $3.9 million to provide a wider contingency for the project.

The Board of Selectmen in Rome, which makes up RSU 18 along with Belgrade, China, Sidney and Oakland, voted unanimously to send a letter to the board and school superintendent in opposition of the proposal. First Selectman Richard LaBelle read the letter to the board at the meeting Wednesday.

“We wish to express concern over the lack of vision that this proposal exposes,” he said. “Our primary focus should be on academics.”

The letter, signed by Selectmen LaBelle, Lois Stratton and Malcolm Charles, notes that the district’s schools are in need of facilities upgrades and renovations to address safety problems, and that there is also a need for teacher training support and better supplies.

Supporters of the project said they don’t think the comparison is fair.

“I think it’s important that the track project be judged on its own merit,” said Jon Moody, an Oakland resident and member of the Messalonskee All Sports Boosters, the group that has been pursuing the athletic complex project.

Moody and Lisa Burton, president of the All Sports Boosters, spoke about the project outside the central office before the meeting, where the organization, students, parents and coaches were gathered. All of the supporters attended the meeting, filling the conference room.

“It’s way overdue,” Burton said of the project. “Our athletes deserve a place to be safe and to practice.”

While LaBelle said he commends their work, he also said “we are not aware of commensurate requests for bonds to do the needed safety and facilities work.”

An assistant state fire marshal found a number of violations and hazards throughout the district’s buildings, some of which carried hefty price tags. The total cost is probably several million dollars.

The proposed athletics project would solve some safety hazards that student athletes face, however, according to Burton.

The track, called the “dirt oval,” is uneven and turns into slippery mud when it rains. The overused fields and hard-to-access seating are also points of concern.

Two students on the track team spoke at the meeting and said the track is unusable and unsafe.

The proposed project would create an eight-lane track, upgrade lighting in the area, renovate the grandstand area so that it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and replace the grass field with multi-sport artificial turf.

The boosters organization has spent nearly $35,000 raised through fundraising events on feasibility studies for the project so far. Sebago Technics surveyed the area over the winter and provided cost estimates.

Dennis Keschl, Belgrade’s town manager, said at the meeting that he had concerns about the project that were similar to LaBelle’s. He also asked about potential private funding for the project.

Burton said the organization is working on getting private donors, but that has to come in “on the backside.”

“In raising money for a facility like this, you need to have a facility actually moving forward, because your big donors will not give until they know there is a plan,” he said.

Keschl, however, said that was “a lot of promises, it’s a lot of hope.”

Both Rome and Belgrade are also looking at their options for educating their students, LaBelle said, so this is poor timing for a project of this size. Rome residents voted to form an academic options exploratory committee, which first meets next week, to look at all of the options available to the town. Meanwhile, a Belgrade resident is petitioning to let people vote in November on withdrawing from RSU 18.

In other business, the board unanimously elected Jim Isgro, of Sidney, as chairman and Tom Burton, of Oakland, as vice chairman.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour


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