OAKLAND — Regional School Unit 18 broke ground on its new athletic complex Friday, officially bidding goodbye to the arguably unsafe “dirt” oval that had served as a track that surrounded a grass field used only for football and looking ahead to an eight-lane upgrade that will encircle a multi-sport artificial turf field.

“It’s unbelievably exciting,” said Superintendent of Schools Carl Gartley, adding that is especially the case for the student athletes who will get to use the new facility. He recently spoke with an athlete who is excited finally to have a real track to run on in her senior year in high school. “To hear excitement in their voice, it makes a lot of hard work worth it,” he said.

The hard work involved coming to terms with the needs of the district, which includes the towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, and figuring out how to address those needs, then pay for them.

The effort to replace the inadequate athletic facilities arose at about the same time the district received a report from the Office of State Fire Marshal listing 104 items that needed to be addressed to bring the system’s buildings into compliance with the state’s fire code. The district was given five years to correct the dozens of fire code violations and was looking at millions of dollars in costs.

Some of the building deficiencies could be covered with money from the state’s School Revolving Renovation Fund, but the district had to come up with more money to cover the corrections needed. That meant issuing a bond.

At the same time, the Messalonskee All Sports Boosters were pursuing the athletic complex project. Led by John Moody, of Oakland, and boosters president Lisa Burton, they argued that the project was long overdue and that the dismal facilities were a danger to student athletes. The “dirt” oval was uneven and turned into slippery mud when it rained. The fields were overused and seating was hard to reach.

School board member Karen Hatch Gagne, of Sidney, said at a meeting in July 2017 that if a bond just for the track project were pursued, they could “kiss another bond goodbye for at least another decade,” as residents would be hesitant to take on more debt.

The Board of Selectmen in Rome opposed the track project and sent a letter to the school board that said their primary focus should be academics, that not only did the school buildings needs upgrades for safety, but that there was a need for teacher training support and better supplies.

Both Rome and Belgrade were looking at other options for educating their towns’ students, and a Belgrade resident was petitioning for a vote in November 2017 to withdraw from RSU 18.

The board left it up to Gartley to come up with a five-year capital plan that would take care of all the pressing issues, including the athletic complex. He proposed a $13.9 million bond that addressed all the needs of the district. It was approved by voters in November 2017.

The bond-funded projects are being administered in three phases, Gartley said Friday.

The first phase involves “extensive energy performance improvements” to school facilities, according to the district’s website: interior and exterior lighting upgrades, window replacements, boiler and ventilation unit replacements, roof repairs and masonry upgrades. The district contracted with Honeywell to do this work.

The district is targeting construction on all non-heating, ventilation and air conditioning work and controls upgrades by June 20, and all HVAC and controls upgrades by July 20.

The second phase involves the upgrades to the athletic complex. On Friday, the district broke ground on the project, which carries a $3.9 million price tag. The improvements will transform the fields into a multi-sport athletic complex. In addition to the eight-lane track and the multi-sport artificial turf field, lighting will be upgraded and the grandstand will be renovated to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The project is expected to be completed in October — that is, if the weather cooperates, Gartley said. The district contracted with E.L. Vining & Son for the work. The school campus will be closed during the summer because of the construction.

Once completed, the complex will be in shape to host state meets. It also might be rented out for events, as Messalonskee’s performing arts center is.

The final phase deals with a variety of capital improvements, including repairs recommended by the state fire marshal’s office. Those projects include installing fire-rated wallboard and doors where recommended, a redesign of the front parking lot at Belgrade Central School, installing a sprinkler system in the gymnasium at the high school, expanding the gymnasium and adding locker rooms at China Middle School and updating science classrooms at Messalonskee High School.

Some of those capital projects are expected to begin this summer, and most of the work is anticipated to be completed in two to three years.

Gartley said the district hopes to have everything finished within three summers. Many of the projects can’t be done at the same time. He also said it was rewarding to see the work finally get started, since there had been several attempts in the past, but it never quite happened.

In Tuesday’s voting, RSU 18 residents approved the district’s proposed $37.58 million budget, which includes payments the district will make on the $13.9 million bond.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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