Race outcome to factor in GHS fate: The Gorham School Committee will look a lot different after Nov. 7.

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William Benson

Billie Capozza

Aaron Carlson

Dennis Libby

Kate Livingston

Jennifer Whitehead

GORHAM — The municipal election next month has attracted seven candidates in two contested races for the School Committee.

It’s a big election for the town’s voters who will fill four available school positions with successful candidates impacting the fate of a likely, multi-million dollar high school project.

Five candidates are running for three, three-year seats while two others are vying for a one-year term on the board.

Those seeking the three-year terms, according to the town clerk’s office, are William Benson, 49, retired Army colonel and a Gorham business owner; Billie Capozza, 35, an employee at Cheverus High School in Portland; Michael Lewin, 37, a department manager for Hannaford; Kate Livingston, 38, a stay-at-home mom; and Jennifer Whitehead, 41, a stay-at-home mom.

Vying for the single-year term to fill a vacancy are Aaron Carlson and Dennis Libby. Carlson, 45, works for IBM while Libby, 50, is maintenance manager at Woodfords Family Services.

The town’s election will be on Tuesday, Nov. 7, and, considering the number of school candidates this year the election is poised to draw a larger than normal turnout.

The seven-member School Committee following the election will have a new makeup as Sara Nelson didn’t seek another run and Suzanne Phillips opted to run for the Town Council. Libby, an incumbent, chose to run for the vacant seat left when Timothy Burns resigned last spring over budget issues.

Gorham has five schools – high, middle and three K-5 elementary schools. The big issue facing the growing town is the escalating enrollment and voters will likely decide the fate of a high school project possibly as early as next year. The School Committee is also looking at redistricting the elementary schools that could shuffle some students.

For taxpayers, eyes will be on a proposed high school project. The high school nearly 60 years old, opened in 1959. A renovation in the 1990s  upgraded the facility to handle 750 students. High school enrollment when classes resumed this fall was about 850 but the enrollment a few years ago had reached 900.

The School Committee after the American Journal deadline Wednesday was to select an architect to develop a high school project. The scope and cost of a project appears undetermined now, but the figures of $50 or $60 million are swirling through town.

School Committee candidates weighed in this week with opinions about resolving issues at the aging building. Options for a high school project identified in a study earlier this year included a new building, a renovation/expansion of the existing high school, and swapping the middle and high schools.

Benson said he doesn’t have an agenda, has an open mind about a high school project, and he tends to be fiscally conservative. He said spending the most money doesn’t necessarily equal the best education. “Quality of teachers is more important than cost of a building,” Benson said.

Capozza said she doesn’t have all the correct information to make a comment on  a particular high school project. Kindergarten and first grades are also “overcrowded,” she said. Capozza cited rising enrollments in the elementary schools as the reason she joined the race.

Like many others, quality of education attracted Carlson to Gorham. He said current projections show growth and he is leaning now towards the most balanced approach to deal with overcrowding. He opposes swapping schools. “I’m supportive of the renovation,” Carlson said.

Lewin said elementary schools are at capacity. He said people agree the high school needs more space, and because the site is landlocked he is willing to look off site for a project. “Sometimes a remodel can cost more than new construction,” he said. “I’m willing to bring a fresh set of eyes.”

Libby, a 12-year School Committee member and four-time chairman, said the bigger problem is growth of the town. He said a project has to meet high school needs and be affordable for taxpayers and he favors the renovation. “If money was not an object, a new school,” Libby said.

Livingston, who launched a Facebook page supporting Gorham education, favors expanding the high school. “There’s no question we’ve run out of space,” she said. Livingston said classrooms today are used differently than when the school opened. She also cited safety/security issues at the aging school.

Whitehead, once a New York City teacher, said she would favor a high school option that is best for the town and the kids. About overcrowding in the school, she pointed out a closet had been turned into a classroom. “I definitely believe its needed,” Whitehead said about a project.

A high school project would require approval of both the School Committee and the Town Council and would then be sent to the town’s voters in a referendum. Local property taxpayers would be responsible for the cost of the project without any help from the state. It could be on a ballot in 2018.

Last month, the Town Council appeared to have endorsed a high school project. It unanimously, 7-0, approved loaning the School Department a $150,000 cash advance to plan for a high school expansion. The money would be repaid, if voters approve borrowing money for construction.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com

Michael Lewin