WINSLOW — After almost a century of use as a public school, Winslow Junior High School might hold its final classes over the next two years as town and school officials come up with a plan to close the building and split the student body between the nearby elementary and high schools.
A preliminary plan to close the school was floated by a town committee last month, but no proposal has been finalized. The idea calls for locating the sixth grade at Winslow Elementary School and the seventh and eighth grades at Winslow High School.
The town has contemplated what to do with the old building for at least a decade.
The junior high was built in 1928 and although it is structurally sound, officials say its layout is inappropriate for the requirements of 21st-century education. Added to that, the building has numerous chronic problems with ventilation, insulation, heating and fire suppression systems among other defects.
In a 2010 application for renovation funding, school officials said the middle school “‘made do’ by bending its program delivery to the exigencies of an outdated, tired facility, much to the detriment of both the learning and teaching environments.”
The building hasn’t improved in the six years since the request was made.
“It is just not a good situation,” Eric Haley, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, said this week.
After a nearly three-year hiatus, the Winslow Junior High School Building Committee met on Jan. 20 to consider options for the building.
Haley said the resident student population in Winslow is expected to decline over the next four years.
The resident population of Winslow High School is forecast to dwindle from 392 students this year to 316 students in 2020. Even with the addition of 60 tuition students from other communities, Winslow High School will be far below its 700-student capacity, according to Haley.
That leaves enough room to move the seventh and eighth grades to the high school, while the elementary school could house the sixth grade.
Aside from using space, moving the older students makes practical sense from a cost and education perspective, Haley said. Adding the seventh and eighth grades to the elementary school means the town would have to include things such as science laboratories, a new gymnasium and locker rooms to accommodate middle school education and after-school activities, such as sports.
“You don’t have that in an elementary school typically,” Haley said.
Although the committee hasn’t discussed the proposal’s cost, splitting students between the elementary and high schools probably would cost significantly less than building an addition, Haley said.
In 2013, a building committee established by the town proposed building a new wing on the elementary school that would house middle school students. That project was estimated to cost $5.2 million, and it never got beyond the planning stage.
Instead, the town asked the committee to hold off for a few years while it paid down debt taken on to renovate the high school and the town-owned industrial building on Benton Avenue.
The 2013 proposal called for 20,000 square feet of new construction and renovation or reconfiguration of another 4,500 square feet at Winslow Elementary School. The construction and renovation was estimated at $4.1 million alone with another $1.1 million in administrative costs and fees.
“We believe the best solution, and a much cheaper solution, would be to leave the sixth-graders at the elementary school and move the seventh- and eighth-graders to the high school,” he said.
The committee is considering moving students out of the junior high for the 2018-19 school year and closing the school.
By that time, the town will have retired $430,000 in debt service and will have more flexibility to borrow, Winslow Town Manager Mike Heavener said.
In order to move forward with the plan, voters would have to approve closing the building, and many in town have an emotional connection to the school, Haley said. The building was Winslow High School until it was converted to a junior high school in the 1960s.
If the committee’s idea moves forward and is approved, the town then will have to figure out what to do with the old building.
Committee members have floated a proposal to move municipal offices and the AOS 92 headquarters into the space and use part of it as a community center. AOS 92 also includes Waterville and Vassalboro schools and has offices in Winslow and Waterville.
The Town Council is expected to address the issue at its meeting Monday, and Heavener is proposing setting up another committee to explore options for the old school.
“That’s the next question,” he said.
Peter McGuire — 861-9239