WATERVILLE — A new committee that will explore the feasibility of closing Albert S. Hall School on Pleasant Street will meet for the first time Wednesday night.

The Albert S. Hall School Study Committee will meet at 6 p.m. at Waterville Senior High School. Signs inside the entrance to the school will direct attendees to the room in which it will be held, according to Sara Sylvester, chairwoman of the committee. Sylvester also is chairwoman of the Waterville Board of Education.

“It will be one hour long, and it is an introductory meeting with the setting up of the committees,” Sylvester said Monday.

Forty-two people, including parents, school board members and others, who expressed interest in serving on the study team have been invited to be part of the process. On Wednesday they will be divided into subcommittees: the Waterville Senior High School, Waterville Junior High School, Central Office/Finance and Hall School subcommittees, she said. While the meeting is open to the public, discussion will be limited to committee participants, according to Sylvester.

“It’s really an organizational meeting, not a meeting open for discussion,” she said.

The Hall School serves fourth and fifth graders. Eric Haley, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro schools, announced in March that Waterville school officials planned to study the feasibility of closing the Hall School in the face of declining enrollment in the city, rising costs and scarcity of education funding. He emphasized that the decision to study the issue does not mean the school will close.

The Board of Education on March 1 unanimously authorized Haley to research the idea of closing the school, moving fourth- and fifth-graders from the Hall School to the junior high with sixth-graders and moving the seventh- and eighth-graders from the junior high to the high school. The board did not take an official vote to authorize closing the school.

Sylvester said Monday that the committees will explore all angles of the school issue, including whether Waterville downtown revitalization efforts are expected to bring more children into the city and how that would affect the Hall School study, the cost of closing the school and what the savings would be, where fourth- and fifth-graders would be moved, and what would happen to school teachers and staff if the school closes. She said the school will not close this year and the exploration will take time.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” Sylvester said of the Waterville process.

The Winslow School Board decided last year to close Winslow Junior High School after a two-year process that included forming a feasibility study.

Haley said Monday that the process of forming subcommittees to look at specific aspects worked well in Winslow. He established the main committee with the goal of having it make a recommendation to the School Board.

Once the Waterville subcommittees have been established at Monday’s meeting, members have voted for chairpersons and decided on meeting schedules, they probably will not meet again until September, according to Sylvester. She said as chairman, she will attend subcommittee meetings as needed or asked.

Waterville school enrollment has declined about 20 percent over the last 18 years, Haley said in March. The cost to run the Hall School for the 2016-17 school year was $1.7 million, he said. Waterville has four schools, including the Hall School, which had 251 students and 23 teachers in March, Haley said. The George J. Mitchell School at the elementary level had 526 students and another 80 at Educare Central Maine which is connected to the school, the Waterville Junior High School 377, and Waterville Senior High School 534. The total Waterville school system had 1,768 students.

In October 1999 there were 2,232 students in the system. The enrollment decline has been steady. In 2007, 1,925 students were enrolled in Waterville schools, and in 2015, 1,818, according to Haley.

The costs of insurances, wages, food, utilities and other items are rising and money is tight, he said.

While there is enough space at Waterville Junior High for the fourth- and fifth-graders, there is not enough space at the high school to add the seventh- and eighth-graders, so if they were moved there, major changes would have to be made, according to Haley. He also said it is too early to say if jobs would be cut as a result of closing a school.

Last year, Waterville schools used $550,000 in undesignated or surplus money, as well as MaineCare support, to help fund the school budget, depleting those two funds, so Waterville was already $550,000 behind before officials even started the budget process this year. Haley said school resources have been very scarce over the last few years, and anything that can be done to streamline and be more efficient is school officials’ responsibility. He also said superintendents must balance the quality of education — what educators need — against the community’s ability to pay.

In a municipal school system, authorization to close a school rests with the local board of education. If a board decides to close a school, the public has 30 days in which to collect signatures — 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election — to ask that the question of closing a school be put to a referendum vote.

A petition would not be possible if school officials decide to replace the school that is closing with a new space. For instance, in Winslow, the junior high is being replaced with a new space, so there was no possibility of a petition, according to Haley.

The Hall School, originally known as the Pleasant Street School, was built in 1920 and has served high school and junior high school students in the past. It was renamed Albert S. Hall School in 1994 in remembrancer of longtime Waterville teacher, principal and superintendent, Albert S. Hall.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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