Officials in Gorham, Maine, knew that the cost to renovate and expand the town’s 59-year-old high school would be big. But when the number was determined—nearly $97 million—it stunned residents and school officials alike.
“We all know that a $100 million project is not sustainable,” says Heather Perry, Gorham's school superintendent. “The question is, what is?”
The Portland Press Herald reports that a $97 million price would make the Gorham High School project the second-costliest in the state—just behind Sanford’s new $100 million high school, which opened in October. The Sanford school can accommodate 1,800 students, versus the roughly 1,100 planned for Gorham.
But perhaps the most striking difference between the two schools is that the state has covered most of the cost of the Sanford school. Gorham decided not to seek state financing because its high property valuations would likely disqualify the town from receiving aid.
Perry says the planned facility upgrades are a response to a growing school population in Gorham. She says the high school's enrollment of 800 stucents exceeds the 750 the campus was designed to hold.
Enrollment growth at the town’s elementary schools will swell numbers at the high school to about 1,000 within a decade, Perry says.
Other deficiencies in the existing facility: Classrooms at the high school are smaller than they should be; having the main entrance is on the opposite side of the school from administrative offices raises safety concerns; new general and science classrooms are needed; gym and cafeteria space is insufficient; and there’s not enough parking for staff and students.
Perry and school board officials would like a bond referendum in November on funding for the renovation and addition. In the meantime, she and school board members will work on trying to pare the cost.
“There’s no intention at all of bringing a $100 million project to the voters of Gorham,” Perry says.
Much of the proposed renovation work would increase the size of classrooms. Almost all are smaller than the state-recommended 800 square feet. The existing gym can’t handle the number of physical education classes, and a cafeteria space crunch means students are sitting on the floors in hallways to eat their lunch.
Darryl Wright, the school board chairman and head of the building committee, says higher construction costs caught him off guard.
“I knew immediately that it was a number that we would not go to the voters with,” he says.
Construction costs have been skyrocketing in Maine and have risen to the highest levels since 2006.
The board initially looked at a renovation about six years ago, Wright says, but shelved the plan when town officials opted for renovating the public safety building.
At that time, the cost of upgrading the high school was estimated at about $17 million, the estimate was compiled before student enrollment trends shifted upward.