WINSLOW — Residents will decide the fate of a $10.33 million bond for major school renovations and consolidation at a referendum in November, but the decision to put the proposal up for a vote has divided town officials.

Some town councilors feel the project is what’s best for the town while others say the price tag is too large for taxpayers.

The Town Council voted 4-3 Monday evening to submit the bond to the November referendum following a contentious discussion that lasted more than an hour.

Councilors Ken Fletcher, Ben Twitchell and Jerry Quirion voted against the bond amount, citing concerns over taking on too much debt that could result in a high tax rate increase.

The tax rate is currently $15.74 per $1,000 of assessed property value, but the town assessor says the rate must increase to $16.74 in time for the next tax bill to cover budgeting shortfalls.

The bond, if passed by voters, will be used for school renovations and consolidation as Winslow schools move forward with the plan to close the Winslow Junior High School, moving seventh- and eighth-graders to the high school and sixth-graders to the elementary schools. Stephen Blatt, a Portland architect who runs Stephen Blatt Architects and attended Monday night’s meeting, has drawn up the plans for the project.

The proposed project would add nine classrooms to the high school for the younger children, parking spaces at both schools and a performing arts center for just under $3 million. The price tag also includes money for demolition costs, if needed.

Quirion and Twitchell voted against the proposal, as they did for the first reading. Both expressed concerns over the potential tax rate increase and questioned if the performing arts center was necessary.

Twitchell said that while he understands they have to close the junior high school and add classrooms to the others, he can’t reconcile that with such a large tax hike.

“The only problem I have … is the fact we’ve already been told our tax rate has to go up a full mill just to reach our regular obligations. So you’re talking two mills in one year,” he said. “I think we can afford the $7 million, but right this minute I can’t support” the performing arts center.

According to Fletcher, approval of the $10.33 million bond would boost the tax rate by an additional $1.07 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

The town is also still paying off debt from 2006 for construction at the high school. While the debt will end in 10 years, during the time it is combined with the new bond, it could increase the tax rate by $1.73, Fletcher calculated.

For the average house in Winslow worth $146,000, the increase would equal an extra $253 on the annual tax bill.

Both the town and the school have retired some debt from bonds recently, but those savings have either been absorbed back into budgets or put toward other work, like road repairs, Fletcher said.

Earlier in the meeting, town assessor Judy Mathiau recommended that the town increase the tax rate by $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value, boosting the rate from $15.74 to $16.74.

“There was just not enough growth this year,” Mathiau said.

This increase also affected how some councilors felt about the bond.

Still, many of the project’s supporters said the voters should have the right to decide on the project and whether they want to pay more for better school facilities.

Jenn McCowan, the drama teacher, said the proposed performing arts center is a necessity, and that the current auditorium is used all but 19 school days.

“I have a philosophical issue with the aux gym being made into a full gym and that being considered educational,” she said.

Quirion proposed an amendment to lower the bond amount to $7.3 million, which failed in a 3-4 vote.

The council discussed potentially sending it back to the committee to draw up a compromise, but those who attended the meeting said they needed to vote “up or down” Monday night.

“You charged a committee to come back and bring you to a recommendation,” said superintendent Eric Haley, who added that school opens in two weeks and he has no time to meet again.

“You need to make a call tonight,” Haley said. “How many times have we looked at the junior high and how many times have you not pulled the trigger? … It’s time for you to make the move.”

A public hearing on the bond at the start of the meeting drew in mostly supporters of the project.

School board member Joel Selwood said it would be “disregarding” the work of the building committee to not bring the bond question to voters at the upcoming November referendum.

He also stressed the importance of the performing arts center.

“Do we ask our football team to play on half a field?” Selwood said. “Do we ask them to store equipment under the bleachers and throw out what they can’t store? … Do we ask the basketball team to get dressed in a classroom?”

Tom McCowan, a resident and husband of Jenn McCowan, asked the council to “think of the bigger picture.”

People are moving to central Maine as the revitalization efforts in neighboring Waterville continue, said McCowan, who is a former board member of Waterville Creates!, and they will be “school shopping.”

“You’re really voting on the future of Winslow,” he said.

A resolution to form a joint ad hoc committee on education finance and performance was also approved unanimously. Fletcher, who sponsored the resolution, said the committee could help foster better communication and understanding between the school and town.

“With all these potential changes happening, it’s not business as usual,” Fletcher said.

The school board technically has to form the committee, so it will decide whether to move forward.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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