WINSLOW — When the Winslow Junior High School building was constructed in 1928, Calvin Coolidge was president, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane and Eliot Ness was hired by the U.S. Justice Department to lead the Prohibition bureau in Chicago.
Eighty-five years later, the aging, two-story school building is the topic of ongoing conversations in the town of 8,000 residents. The school needs roof repairs, window replacements, energy upgrades and much more. Fixing the building could cost more than $3 million and it would still be a relatively dated, cramped and inefficient facility, some say.
Among several options under review is the possibility of consolidating the junior high into Winslow Elementary School, a relatively modern facility a few blocks to the north, on Benton Avenue.
The concept, which is still in its formative stages, calls for an additional two-story wing, an expanded cafeteria, new office space and added gymnasium space. If approved, the consolidation project could cost more than $5 million. That’s a substantial sum for a former mill town with declining student enrollments, but proponents say the annual cost savings from closing the junior high school building would go a long way toward paying for the project.
There are other questions, as well. What happens if you mix older and younger students? And what happens to the stately brick landmark on Danielson Street if junior high students move?
On Thursday, the Winslow Junior High Building Committee — a 20-member group comprising district administrators, faculty, staff, two parents of school-aged children and two town officials — gathered in the junior high school library to hear a presentation by Portland architect Stephen Blatt.
The committee was formed late last year to examine four options for the junior high school: renovate the existing building, build a new standalone structure, consolidate into the elementary school, or consolidate into the high school. During an earlier January meeting, all but one committee member voted in a straw poll to research the elementary school option.
Blatt stood by an easel Thursday and pointed to drawings of the elementary school, with its proposed new elements set in bold lines.
Winslow Elementary School currently holds 500 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, but it’s spacious enough to accommodate another 100 sixth-graders from the junior high school, Blatt said.
To consolidate the entire junior high school, the elementary school would need to be reworked to accept another 200 students from seventh and eighth grades — a total of about 800 students in one enlarged building.
To accomplish that growth, Blatt proposes adding 20,000 square feet in five areas.
The expansion would include a new, two-story wing dedicated exclusively to seventh- and eighth-graders, which the building can readily accommodate, Blatt said. When Winslow Elementary School was constructed in the early 1990s, the floor plan allowed for a possible expansion on its north side. Currently, the building has three wings. The fourth would complete the building’s symmetry and add about 13,000 square feet of classroom space.
The architect also proposes moving the main entrance farther north, into a new, 2,500-square-foot addition that would house the administrative offices. The entrance would also include enhanced security features: Anyone entering the school at midday would have to be “buzzed in” by the school secretary from behind protective glass.
Blatt proposes adding a half-gymnasium, adjacent to the existing gymnasium, for the school’s youngest students. The addition would be single-level because a low ceiling is not an issue for young athletes, he said.
The cafeteria, which can currently accommodate 150 diners at a time, would be expanded with a mezzanine for an additional 50 seats.
Blatt would also convert the library’s two upper-level decks into classrooms.
Blatt, who has worked on 60 schools in Maine and served as architect for renovations to the Winslow High School in 2006, said he has analyzed the school’s operating costs and determined the district is spending about $375,000 a year to operate and maintain the junior high school. If the school consolidated into the elementary school, about $100,000 of those operating costs would move to the new location, leaving about $275,000 in savings, he said.
If the option was eventually chosen over all others, the savings would pay for about $3.5 million of the project over the life of a standard bond, leaving the town to pay about $150,000 a year until the bond is paid. Blatt said the estimates are pre-inflated to anticipate 2014 costs.
The conceptual drawings are a first pass — meant to generate ideas and feedback — but Blatt said he’s certain of one thing.
“Whatever we build over there, it will be better than what you have now,” he said.
Superintendent Eric Haley said the purpose of the building committee, which was formed by the Board of Education, is to study the four options and any others, and recommend the best option to the board. Then, the board will make its own decision.
The committee also has the leeway to call a public meeting on the issue and incorporate public sentiment into its recommendation. The committee agreed Thursday to hold a public meeting, but the date has not been set yet.
In the meantime, Haley hopes the committee will take the time to digest the proposal and share thoughts and feedback during its next meeting in early February.
Haley shared his own feelings Friday.
“I was in a sticker shock,” Haley said of the cost estimate. “That was a bit more than I was expecting.”
‘All local dollars’
Kevin Michaud, principal of the junior high school, said the school has been a topic of conversation for several years, but it came to the forefront in January 2011, when a town report listed public buildings that were in the greatest need of improvement.
The junior high school building was tied for second place with the town’s industrial building — the site of Orion Ropeworks on Benton Avenue — which received some grant-funded improvements last year. The No. 1 item in the report was the police station, which reopened earlier this month after a renovation and expansion project.
The junior high school building is functional, but doesn’t meet modern standards and codes, Michaud said. Grant proposals to renovate the school have also been rejected by the state.
“At this point, no matter what we do, it’s all local dollars,” he said. “We’re on our own.”
Michaud has served as principal for three years. It’s unclear what might happen to the school’s administrative staff if consolidation happens, but the move could conceivably put him out of his job, he said.
The building, which functioned as a high school until 1964, also holds great sentimental value in town.
“There is a piece to this whole equation that is political and emotional for some people, ” he said. “This was their high school. They graduated from here. For a whole other generation, this was their junior high. This building has provided a lot of memories. It’s been a big part of people’s lives. It’s a central part of the landscape.”
There’s also the matter of combining older students with younger ones, if consolidation is eventually pursued. It’s a sticking point for some parents, who prefer that early adolescents have their own space to inhabit during a time of big changes, such as puberty.
Nonetheless, Michaud said, there’s nothing wrong with combining different age groups. The state of Maine, for instance, defines elementary education as K-8.
“If you do it right, it works,” he said.
Blatt’s conceptual drawings would put the oldest and youngest students in opposite ends of the elementary school, with very little daily interaction.
Town Council Chairman Gerald Saint Amand said updating the existing building to modern standards would be a “high mountain to climb,” but consolidation presents its own challenges.
“There’s a whole world of controversy in there, because many people feel there’s great value to having a break between elementary and high school,” he said.
Sixth-grader Kaitlin Fecteau said she’s aware that consolidation is being discussed as a possibility, but she’s not sure what she thinks about it.
“It’s kind of good and kind of bad,” she said. “I think I’d like it better at the elementary school.”
If consolidation happens, the old building could be repurposed into town offices or converted to commercial space, Saint Amand said.
“There are many options beyond locking the door and walking away,” he said. “But it’s way, way, way too early to be making any decisions.”
Ben McCanna — 861-9239