AUGUSTA — The city’s four elementary schools will be heated by natural gas next winter.

The school board on Wednesday unanimously approved a $362,977 project to replace or convert the boilers at the elementary schools to burn natural gas, which is expected to save enough money to pay back the project costs in less than three years.

Augusta Public Schools is finishing a $732,000 conversion of Cony High School and Capital Area Technical Center for natural gas heat. Buildings and Grounds Director John Pucciarelli said three new boilers are installed and should be running by November.

When the school board approved that project in February, it was too late to consider converting the elementary schools for this year.

Pucciarelli told the school board that most of the boilers in the elementary schools need to be replaced anyway. While the boilers at Hussey Elementary are six years old, and one can easily be upgraded to burn natural gas, the boilers at Farrington, Gilbert and Lincoln elementary schools are all at least 20 years old, and he just hopes they’ll function smoothly through this winter.

Pucciarelli said the school district will seek a lease-purchase agreement for the new equipment, which will also be able to heat with propane, in case natural gas is not available next year. The savings from natural gas would be much greater than those from propane.

Figures presented to the school board project that savings from natural gas would pay back the costs of the project in 2.3 years at Gilbert and Hussey, 2.9 years at Farrington and 3.1 years at Lincoln.

Summit Natural Gas is providing natural gas service to Augusta municipal and school buildings.

In other business:

• By a split vote, the board decided to keep holding preliminary meetings at 6:30 p.m. to review the agenda and ask questions of Superintendent James Anastasio before the regular board meeting at 7 p.m. The policy committee had recommended eliminating the preboard meeting.

The preliminary meetings are open to the public, but no one attends, and they are not televised, unlike the regular meetings. Some school board members complained that key information is shared during the preliminary meetings, and sometimes informal decisions are even made, out of sight of the public.

“Our concern was that business should be done out here in public, in front of all of you,” Ward 3 school board member Nicole Desjardins said, speaking for the policy committee.

At-large board member Larry Ringrose said earlier this year, he missed a preliminary meeting and was confused why board members voted during the regular meeting to table a motion to upgrade a boiler without discussing it. He said he was told that the discussion took place during the preliminary meeting.

“I would say we’re more likely than not to conduct business in there than not, in my experience,” Ringrose said. “I’m not saying it’s intentional, but it’s wrong. We can’t control ourselves, and we’re going to keep doing it.”

Other board members said they appreciate having time before the regular meetings to discuss the agenda and the procedure for making decisions.

At-large board member Linda Hamilton said most discussions actually happens at the meetings where school board committees work out details of the proposals that they send to the full board. She said people should consider attending the committee meetings, which are also open to the public.

The committee meetings typically take place the first Monday of the month, two days prior to the regular board meetings. This week, there were four committees that met in sequence from 4:30 p.m. until nearly 9:30 at Hussey Elementary.

The motion to eliminate the preboard meetings failed, with only Desjardins, Ringrose and Ward 4 board member voting “yes.” Hamilton, Chairwoman Susan Campbell, Ward 2 board member Deborah Towle and at-large board member Kim Martin voted “no.”

• Capital Area Technical Center Director Peter Gagnon announced that the architectural and engineering design program has been canceled for this year.

The program’s director resigned at the start of the school year after finding a better paying teaching position elsewhere, and Gagnon said a search did not turn up a qualified replacement.

Gagnon said after the meeting that it’s difficult to find an architect willing to take a pay cut to go into teaching.

The program had 12 students: Eight from Cony, two from Maranacook Community High School and two from Erskine Academy. Five of the students have returned to their home schools, while the other seven are entering other programs at CATC.

Anastasio said the program is a good one, and district officials intend to look for a new instructor to lead it next year.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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