WINSLOW — The school board voted 5-1 Monday evening to send to the Town Council for review an $8.6 million proposal to close the junior high school and create new space to accommodate the sixth, seventh and eighth grades in the elementary and high schools.

The plan, which the 25-member building committee endorsed unanimously, includes money to build program space for seventh- and eighth-grade students, a 430-seat auditorium, and auxiliary gymnasium and food service expansions at the high school. It also includes money to renovate the elementary school to add space for sixth-grade students.

School board member Earl Coombs was absent.

A similar proposal to close the junior high and make renovations to the other schools to be funded by a $10.33 million bond failed at the polls in November.

Before the vote, board Chairman Joel Selwood, who also chairs the building committee, presented the committee’s recommendation. He explained that they tried to reduce square footage anywhere they could and plan to repurpose some existing space to fit their needs in order to bring the cost of the project down.

“We tried to compromise between the various interests and still meet the needs of the community in the long term and not the short term,” Selwood said.

The committee also pared down the original plan’s 600-seat auditorium for visual and performing arts to a smaller 430-seat auditorium. The auditorium became a major point of contention during the previous bond effort. Critics said its inclusion was unnecessary.

Jason Rifenbark, who was elected to represent District 5 in November, was the sole vote against the committee’s recommendation, primarily because of the plan’s inclusion of an auditorium.

“The original vote in November, I feel it didn’t pass because of the auditorium,” Rifenbark said in an interview after the vote. “I think that’s what the voters wanted, so I think that’s how it should be done. I don’t think spending that money on the auditorium right now is the greatest idea.”

He thought the board should have stayed within the $7.83 million that the Town Council recommended as a bond cap. He said he doesn’t think the new auditorium is a necessity, noting the high school already has an auditorium.

Rifenbark’s view was antithetical to many who spoke of the schools’ need for a larger auditorium if the junior high and high school were to be consolidated.

“The performing arts are part of the education, and that’s just a fact,” board member John Ferry said. “Any plan without an auditorium is not acceptable in my opinion.”

Selwood said that it is already known that the junior high’s 38-member jazz band, with their instruments, can’t fit on the high school’s stage.

The board also has mentioned in previous meetings that 62 percent of students enrolled in Winslow schools have participated in the visual and performing arts programs offered at the schools this year.

“There are some that would say we provide a lot of space for those interested in athletics and not the same for visual and performing arts,” Selwood said of the auditorium debate. “(The plan) is still smaller than the current junior high auditorium, but larger than the high school’s 210-seat auditorium.”

In addition to the auditorium, Ferry thought that the expansion of the cafeteria should be a major selling point for the high school renovation. There are too few points of service in the cafeteria, he said, resulting in long waits for students to get food and subsequently not enough time to eat it. Many students skip lunch to avoid the long lines so that they can socialize with their friends, he said.

When students opt out of the lunch, Ferry argued, the school loses revenue for food service; but more importantly, the students don’t perform at their best later in the day.

With the new plan, more points of service are included so students can get their food more quickly and have more time to eat.

“Adusting the cafeteria so the students will eat is a major thing,” Ferry said. “Without that energy, they’re not going to learn properly. Cafeteria expansion is a key reason to vote for this plan.”

Kyle Price, the elementary school principal, said he is concerned that the plan leaves little room for the elementary school to grow and that it will be tight with the absorption of the sixth-grade students.

“If there is a bump in enrollment, it will create a problem,” Price said.

A large amount of contingency money is factored into the proposal, Selwood said, and the current plan is not set in stone and could be altered to address Price’s concerns.

The committee previously voted on two other possible plans, both of which were rejected unanimously. The first was a configuration that included pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, which would bring all junior high students to the elementary school. The cost estimate for that project totaled about $9.6 million.

The second proposal pitched renovating the high school to include grades 7 through 12 at a cost of $7.52 million, but it would not include an addition of an auditorium.

The Town Council probably will discuss the issue at its March 7 meeting.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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