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Mayor: New high school needs broad input

AUBURN — Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte is urging broad participation when the Auburn School Committee meets Wednesday night to talk about the long process required by the state to build a new Edward Little High School.

“This will be the largest public construction project in the history of our city,” LaBonte told the City Council on Monday night. “The School Committee owns the process,” he said, but it’s important that the committee and City Council are on the same page.

The mayor has asked for a joint workshop of the two groups.

After years of planning by Auburn officials, the Maine Board of Education on Sept. 14 voted to guarantee state funding. New high schools cost $62 million to $65 million. Superintendent Katy Grondin has said it will likely be five to seven years before the new school opens.

The Board of Education’s vote means the state will pay for 100 percent of the school, except for extras the city may add.

There will be requests for Auburn taxpayers to invest in the school, LaBonte said. “As mayor, I would hope so.” There are worthwhile investments the city can make to grow the community, he said.

“But how we engage the community in this project, how we talk about opportunities, how the two boards work together will dictate how grand of a vision we can create,” he said. That engagement is essential from city officials “and citizens of all stripes.”

Superintendent Katy Grondin said Tuesday that she welcomes city input.

“We’re going to be working hand in hand with the city,” she said.

The state has a specific process when building a school, Grondin said. “We will work with the Department of Education to make sure we’re doing everything required,” she said.

The School Committee will soon establish a building committee, which will be charged with hiring an architect. Site selection will follow.

During a discussion with city councilors Monday night, LaBonte said city officials and city residents will have to make some decisions, depending on where the school is built. Residents will have to approve the site before the process can move to referendum.

“I want to start pushing public discussion,” LaBonte said as he gave a slide presentation on possibilities.

LaBonte showed an aerial view of the current high school’s 56-acre site. If the current site is used for the new school, LaBonte asked, “what would happen to the old building?”

LaBonte suggested a few possibilities. Local colleges could hold classes there or a small business development center could use the space. It could also serve as a school for children of workers and patients of Miracle Enterprise, a proposed Minot Avenue resort for Chinese patients seeking treatment at Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center.

If a new location for a high school is chosen, it doesn’t take much analysis to see there are few options for that amount of undeveloped land outside Auburn’s agriculture zone, he said.

“There was a call to buy the Whiting Farm” for a new school, which has been bought by John F. Murphy Homes. If a site in the agriculture zone is picked, it could mean a whole new way of thinking about investing to extend sewer lines and waterlines, as well as rezoning to allow development near the school.

With a new high school site, “a number of issues jump right out,” LaBonte said, including determining a plan to transition the prime, in-town site to taxable use. As as soon as a new school opens, the city would benefit by having the plan “ready to roll,” he said.

Another possibility is having two campuses at the school, an academic campus and an athletic campus. An athletic campus involving cooperation among Central Maine Community College, St. Dominic Academy and the Norway Savings Bank Arena could serve students and help the city attract sports tournaments and athletic tourism.

Grondin said Tuesday that any idea, including the mayor’s, “has to be vetted by the building committee. We welcome ideas and suggestions.”

No decisions have been made, Grondin said, and won’t be until the building committee has time to form and get to work.

The School Committee meeting begins at 7 p.m. tonight.

Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Auburn mayor Jonathan LaBonte

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