BAR HARBOR — Voters here will weigh in on whether the school board should continue planning a combined middle school to serve all the towns in the school district. The non-binding “straw poll” question will go on the June ballot, as the Town Council decided on Tuesday.
According to a memo from Superintendant Marc Gousse, the question will be: “Are you in favor of the School Board continuing planning efforts for a combined, district-wide middle school?”
A note included on the ballot below the question will explain the meaning of the vote: “A vote ‘yes’ will tell the local school board to continue their planning efforts, including, but not limited to, developing conceptual drawings, cost estimates, potential locations, and a future referendum question.”
In other words, the June ballot question does not authorize the creation of a new combined middle school; it simply allows the planning work for a potential future school to continue.
School board member Marie Yarborough explained to councilors on Tuesday that a subcommittee had formed to answer the question: “What would a combined middle school look like?”
So far the planning work has been done by the volunteer subcommittee. Next steps, such as conceptual drawings, cannot be done by volunteers. That’s why before going any further, Yarborough said, “we need to step back and assess the appetite for what for what we’re planning.”
Before voting unanimously to put the non-binding straw poll question on the June ballot, councilors asked Yarborough and school board chair Kristi Losquadro if they would rather have the question on the November ballot, which will coincide with the national Presidential election.
Losquadro said the school board expects to have another question on the November ballot: a bond question for renovating or rebuilding Conners Emerson School.
She said she would not want voters to confuse the two issues. The Conners Emerson project needs to happen, she said, whether or not the seventh and eighth grade students eventually leave for a combined middle school.
“We definitely have a significant need to renovate Conners Emerson School,” Losquadro said. Referring to the aging buildings and problems with the heating system, she said, “we feel like we’re on borrowed time.”
Leading up to the vote in June, the subcommittee plans to host community forums to explain their work so far on the combined middle school idea.
“The idea of a district-wide middle school has been discussed for decades,” Yarborough told councilors, mentioning a thesis paper written in 1993 that “referenced ten years of previous discussions before that.”
In 2014, Superintendant Howard Colter started researching the idea, which was dropped a couple of years later. The idea “bubbled up again” in school board discussions in 2018, Yarborough said, prompting the formation of the current subcommittee.
The subcommittee, Yarborough said, has a “core group of 16 diverse members,” including two representatives from each school committee in the school system.