FAIRFIELD — The Maine State Board of Education will hold a Dec. 12 meeting at Fairfield Primary School, identified earlier this year as the state’s number one school construction priority, and the school’s principal is looking forward to giving the board, which oversees approval of school construction projects for receipt of state funds, a tour of the building that has developed problems over time, but that she says is “still functioning well.”

The Maine Department of Education’s most recent list of funding priorities for its Major Capital School Construction Program, which subsidizes local school construction projects with state funding, rated the more-than-a-century-old Fairfield Primary School as the project with the greatest need in the state.

School Administrative District 49 Superintendent of Schools Dr. Reza Namin is looking forward to the opportunity to host the state board, though as of Nov. 13 said he was still waiting for final details about the meeting. Department of Education Communication Officer Rachel Paling confirmed that the meeting is scheduled for Dec. 12, though the meeting agenda is not yet available on the Department’s website.

“We’re looking forward to their visit,” said Fairfield Primary School Principal Lori Lee, who expects the board to receive a tour of the building as part of the meeting in Fairfield.

According to the Department of Education website, school districts apply for the Major Capital School Construction Program, a department team reviews those applications and conducts a site visit, and then each application is rated according to the greatest need.

“The Maine Education Commissioner presents the list to the State Board. The Board funds as many projects from the list as available debt limit funds allow,” the state website explains, and the Department and State Board set the size and financial limitations on projects. “In seeking solutions to educational facility issues, the Maine DOE first looks to the possibility of renovations or renovations with additions. New school construction projects are only considered in instances in which renovation projects are not economically or educationally feasible.”

Fairfield Primary, which currently serves Kindergarten and Pre-K students, was built in 1907 and is the oldest of three schools for which the district submitted capital construction applications. Together with Albion Elementary and Clinton Elementary, Fairfield Primary has been at the center of longstanding conversations about consolidation within the district. The district’s Fairfield Primary application to the state acknowledged those considerations.

“The Board of Directors along with M.S.A.D. #49 Administrative Team has given serious consideration to the concept of combining Albion Elementary, Clinton Elementary and Fairfield Primary School in one new school building,” said the application submitted in 2017. “The new school would save the townspeople money as the new school would run more efficiently and the students would have a better learning environment.”

Then Superintendent Dr. Dean Baker said at the time, “We believe our application has significant merit and that it makes much more sense to consolidate schools and avoid the cost of repair and ongoing maintenance in three schools that have all been in service for a very long time.”

Despite those past discussions, Namin, who began his tenure this school year, is walking back the consolidation conversation.

“When you close a school, you close a community,” Namin said Tuesday, emphasizing this belief that the several SAD 49 communities of Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield need to evaluate where they want to go as a district. “We need to start a conversation to decide who we are.”

Lee, who is principal at both Fairfield Primary and Albion Elementary, echoed Namin’s emphasis on community engagement in determining the district’s future.

“I think our community has to really decide about all the details,” she said, adding that Namin has brought a “new beginning” and that there are “lots of things for the district to consider.”

With her dual roles in two of the district’s towns, Lee sees positive signs in both Albion and Fairfield.

“I think Albion feels invigorated, just like Fairfield does,” she said.

As far as Fairfield Primary’s future, Lee said it is “going to be about what the community wants.”

She called the century-old brick building, which once served as Lawrence High School, a “well-loved, historic building” that has “really served us very well.”

“We have such a nice little school,” said Lee, who is excited to showcase the old building and some of its newer additions, such as wireless technology, when the State Board visits Dec. 12.

Both Lee and the district’s application to the state, however, acknowledge some of the school’s structural shortcomings that have developed over time. The application references “very hazardous” traffic, safety concerns involving stair rails and guards that do not meet code requirements, storage issues, windows “in state of disrepair” and frequent roof leaks. Lee said the varying levels and number of stairs in the building raises concerns with the young children, and she does wish for more space on the less than 1.5-acre school site.

“The building is safe for students, otherwise we wouldn’t be there,” Lee said, saying “it’s really still functioning well.”

Namin said Fairfield Primary “definitely needs some renovation” and that “there’s a lot of history and culture in that building.”

He believes “the state shouldn’t dictate to us what direction we go” and noted that while the project is rated as the state’s first funding priority, that doesn’t mean the district is guaranteed funding.

Paling, the Department of Education spokeswoman, stressed that “there won’t be a final list of approved projects until funding is allocated through the state’s budgeting process. This won’t happen until the new administration and the new legislature convene next year.”

School districts can also decide to go it alone and finance capital projects themselves.

Matt Junker — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @mattjunker

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