WINSLOW — The Winslow School Board voted April 25 to accept the Winslow Junior High School Building Committee’s recommendation to close the junior high building in two years, moving sixth graders to Winslow Elementary School and seventh and eighth-graders to Winslow High School.
The decision came after years of talking about possibly closing the old junior high school on Danielson Street, which is old and costly to maintain, and forming the building committee to study the options.
School Superintendent Eric Haley wants to schedule public meetings for June and September so that the public can weigh in on the proposal. Those dates have not yet been set.
Meanwhile, the public may log onto the three schools’ websites at AOS92.org and fill out a survey asking if they favor the building committee’s recommendation to close the junior high and move sixth graders to the elementary school and seventh and eighth graders to the high school. As of late last week, Haley said the public response to the survey had indicated that 61 percent were in favor of closing the school and moving the students and 39 percent were not. The board could decide to put the question to voters.
“Technically, because Winslow is a municipal school system, the school board has the right to close the school without a referendum vote, as long as it is replaced with a comparable space to where they are,” Haley said. “I did tell the board that they have the legal right to make the decision and move forward, but just because they have the legal right doesn’t mean it’s the politically correct thing to do.”
He added that, if within 30 days of the school board’s voting to close the school it receives a petition signed by 10 percent of the number of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election, the question must be put to referendum. Since the board’s vote was April 25, that petition would have to be received within about a week.
There are many matters to be discussed as part of the school proposal, not the least of which is the cost and scope of not only renovating the elementary school to accommodate the sixth graders, but also to build an addition onto the high school to create an appropriate space for seventh and eighth graders.
A preliminary estimate by Stephen Blatt, an architect who has worked on dozens of school projects in Maine and designed the previous high school renovation, was $8.3 million for the high school addition, which would include 10 classrooms with individual bathrooms, an auditorium and a half-sized gym. That estimate sent some school and town officials into what they describe as “sticker shock.”
But several building committee and school board members, as well as administration officials and town councilors, say the price will likely not be that much, and they are discussing what is needed, what the town wants and how much money people are willing to spend. No decisions have been made.
And there’s the question about what the junior high should be used for if it is closed. Should it be torn down? Used possibly for a community center, town office and school offices?
One thing is for sure. The junior high, built in 1928 and used as a high school until the 1960s, has big issues.
“Now, we’re maintaining the building for life and health and safety issues,” Haley said. “If something is dangerous, we fix it obviously, but we are not putting money into anything unless we have to. The good thing about the building is that it is rock-solid. You could use it as a bomb shelter. It was well-built.”
WHY CLOSE THE SCHOOL?
The junior high, which houses 270 sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, is old and energy inefficient and all of its windows need to be replaced, which would cost about $500,000 alone, according to Haley. The building is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, its thick cement walls make it difficult to get wireless connections in the school, the gymnasium can not be used for games because the floors are pulling up and ground water is getting in, and the building is heated with steam and some of the steam pipes in the walls are starting to rot while others have broken and had to be torn out, he said. The gym now is used for physical education, but any athletic games are held at the elementary school gym, Haley said.
Beyond that, the junior high is not set up for the concept of a middle school.
“It was not built for today’s programming needs of a junior high,” Haley said.
Winslow has only three schools — the elementary, junior high and high schools. In addition to the 270 students at the junior high, there are 469 students in kindergarten through grade five at the elementary school and 444 students in grades nine through 12 at the high school, according to administrative records.
“The elementary school was built to have about 800 students, and we could put the sixth graders in there without doing too much renovation,” Haley said. He said Blatt did not give an estimate for how much renovations would cost at the elementary school.
The other factor that plays into the school proposal is that student population is expected to continue to decrease. Enrollment projections for 10 years down the road, based on a number of criteria, support that contention, according to Haley.
“I know from looking at that table that our numbers are going to continue to go down,” he said. “That’s not unusual — it’s happening everywhere” because people are having fewer children than previous generations.
Many parents and others have expressed concern about placing seventh and eighth-graders into a high school setting and say if it is to be done, there should be a barrier between the junior high and high school students.
But Haley said that in the last couple of months, Winslow school administrators and teachers visited schools that house students in grades seven through 12 and officials there reported no problems with the configuration.
“The reality is, when you go to seven-through-12 high schools and ask if it’s ever been an issue, they say ‘never,'” he said.
He said planners organize those schools so there’s a general area for seventh and eighth graders and they may stay within that space, but it does not forbid them from passing through a corridor to go to a senior high school office, for instance, if they want to do that.
SCOPE, NEEDS, COSTS
The School Board commissioned the building committee, which had its first meeting in 2012, to consider options for the junior high. The panel met pretty steadily for about a year and then took a hiatus because town officials asked members to slow down the process, as they did not want to incur any more debt until the town retired some debt service, according to Haley.
The committee started meeting again in January this year. Members included teachers, school administrators, town councilors, Town Manager Michael Heavener and community members. In April, the panel made the recommendation to the School Board about closing the school and moving the students. The School Board voted unanimously to accept the recommendation.
The building committee met May 2 and again last Thursday to further discuss the proposal. Members talked about what the community wants for the elementary school and high school in terms of renovations and additions, how plans would be drawn up, who would manage the project and what town officials will consider when determining how much the town can afford and would want to spend on such a project.
The state Bureau of General Services must approve all school construction projects, according to Haley, who talked about availability of money to borrow for building projects.
He said he spoke with an official about Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, or federally subsidized dollars that may be used for school renovations and equipment, and the official told Haley his goal would be to lend Winslow money at zero percent interest. Haley also spoke with an official at the state Department of Education who said $2.4 million is available for borrowing and the department has received only one application for $2.1 million.
“She welcomed us to put in an application,” he said.
Meanwhile, building committee member Dan Wildes spoke to about 15 board members and 13 audience members about what it means to have a pre-construction manager and construction manager for a project to ensure the town gets what it wants and needs in terms of scope and cost and that school and town officials have a voice in the process.
“There has to be a level of trust that we are looking out for your best interest,” Wildes said.
Wildes works for Sheridan Corp., which is a construction manager for building projects. A construction manager does scheduling, contracts, subcontracting and quality control among other work.
In discussing the cost for a Winslow proposal, Heavener, the town manager, said Blatt’s initial cost estimate of $8.3 million made him wonder if the committee should go back and look at an earlier option of sending all junior high students to the elementary school.
“Sticker shock would be an understatement,” Heavener said of his reaction to the estimate.
But Town Councilor Ray Caron noted that instead of looking solely at curbing costs, officials should look at the future needs of schools and the community and whether a performing arts space, for instance, is needed to help attract potential home buyers and home builders to Winslow. The town wants to be happy with what it gets and not scale it down too much, Caron said.
Town Councilor Joel Selwood agreed, saying it is important that the town design what it needs and then figure out if it can afford it.
“I wouldn’t be too scared yet of the sticker,” he said.
Winslow resident Tom McCowan, a real estate lawyer, said a lot is happening in Waterville with Colby College and the city’s plans to revitalize the downtown and bring more people to live and work there.
He said when people look to move to an area, they consider the quality of schools, tax rate and other features. Top-notch athletic and performing arts venues draw people to a community, he said. The town might want to think not only about its needs, but also about what would make Winslow shine and be attractive, he said.
“We have some really great neighborhoods to live in here,” McCowan said.
Heavener said the council will look at the impact on the tax rate when deciding how much money the town will spend on a project.
“That’s going to be a priority,” he said, adding that when the tax rate increases, homeowners pay a little more, but businesses get hit harder.
“They want to look at that and weigh that — what the impact is going to be,” Heavener said of councilors.
Meanwhile, parent and businessman Corey Dow asked if town officials were ready to say what the junior high building would be used for if it is closed.
Council Chairman Gerald St. Amand said that was a separate issue and it does not need to be addressed until later. He said he thinks officials need to deal with one major decision at a time.
But Dow disagreed.
“I think it needs to be known up front,” he said.
The building committee will meet again at 6 p.m. June 2 at the high school, and the session is open to the public.
Amy Calder — 861-9247