WATERVILLE — Ensuring students have developmentally appropriate space in which to learn and thrive was the focus of the first meeting of a committee charged with exploring the feasibility of closing Albert S. Hall School on Pleasant Street.

More than 40 people, including parents, teachers, school administrators and school board members who expressed interest in serving on the study team, turned out Wednesday night in the media center at Waterville Senior High School for the one-hour organizational meeting.

With Chairwoman Sara Sylvester directing the session, committee members — mostly women — split into four subcommittees and elected chairmen for each. Waterville Senior High School Principal Brian Laramee was elected to the high school subcommittee; Waterville Junior High School Principal Carole Gilley, for the junior high; Schools Finance Director Paula Pooler, for the Central Office/Finance; and Hall School subcommittee and Hall School Principal Barbara Jordan, for the Hall School subcommittee.

Only one person was in the audience — resident Bill Basford.

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.

On March 1, the Waterville Board of Education, of which Sylvester is chairwoman, authorized Haley to research the idea of closing the school and 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 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 schoolteachers and staff if the school closes. The school will not close this year and the exploration will take time, both Sylvester and Haley have said.

On Wednesday, Sylvester said there are no preconceived ideas about the cost of closing the school, savings to be realized or any other matter associated with the effort.

“We want the facts, and that’s what this group is about,” she said.

Assistant schools Superintendent Peter Thiboutot said it has been a difficult budget season and people must think outside the box about matters such as declining student enrollment and what that means in terms of school buildings. There are a lot of factors that go into exploring the feasability of closing a school, as was evidenced by the process followed in Winslow for exploring closing the junior high school there, according to Thiboutot.

An important focus, he said, is making sure to provide quality facilities and quality education for students. For instance, one cannot just close a school and send a couple of grades of students to the high school without discussing how that affects the middle school philosophy, according to Thiboutot.

Krista Von Oesen, a teacher aide at the Hall School, said she had done a bit of research and found there are some communities that hire an engineer and architecture firm that works with schools systems to explore and establish costs for closing a school. They do evaluations of buildings and other reserarch, according to Von Oesen.

“They do this every day,” she said, adding that she thinks there is state funding to help with such efforts.

Local college engineering students also can be used to help, she said.

Sylvester said that as the committee moves forward and makes decisions, that may be an avenue it would take.

Lisa Evans, a parent, said that wherever students are moved as part of a school closure, money will have to be spent.

“No school at present will be able to accommodate any of the movement without some monetary spending,” she said.

Pam Trinward, a school board member, said if students are moved to the high school, changes would have to be made to make it more junior high-friendly. But she noted that no decisions have been made on anything.

“It’s not like we have the space all picked out,” she said. “This is really the beginning stages.”

Before the gourp broke into subcommittees, Sylvester asked members to think about how to keep schools a vibrant place for students. The exploration is not all about dollars and cents, she said.

“How are we going to keep the milieu and culture of each school?” she asked. “We have great schools.”

In the junior high subcommittee, Gilley said the middle school is developmentally different from the elementary or high schools, so it is hard to imagine middle schoolers on a high school campus. The junior high has special attributes including an outdoor classroom, trails and a ropes course, acording to Gilley. Money, time and effort have been put into them; and if the students were to be moved to the high school, so much would be lost, she said.

In the Hall School subcommittee session, Jordan and Lenore Boles, who works in special education, said it is important to look at appropriate spaces for students. Jordan said if students are moved to the junior high, it is critical they continue to be considered elementary students. Outdoor spaces such as the school garden and playground are integral to the Hall School and would have to be maintained if students are moved, she and Boles said.

As subcommittee members worked in groups, Sylvester and Thiboutot said they thought the evening was going well.

“They’re starting to ask some of the questions that impact student achievement,” Thiboutot said. “I think they’re asking very good questions. I think they’re being open-minded.”

The committee will not meet again until 6 p.m. Sept. 21 at the same location — the media center at the high school.

The committee’s main goal is to make a recommendation to the School Board about whether to close the school, and that decision rests solely with that board. If the board decides to close the 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.

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 Hall School, which had 251 students and 23 teachers in March, Haley said. 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.

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 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.

Hall School, originally known as 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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