SKOWHEGAN — Maine School Administrative District 54 is looking at options around Skowhegan to house a new school to replace North Elementary.

North Elementary School, at 33 Jewett St., qualified for the state’s Major Capital School Construction program, ranking No. 2 out of 74 schools. Completed in 1954, the school originally served students in kindergarten through fourth grade. It now serves about 165 students in prekindergarten and kindergarten.

The process for selecting architects and moving forward with the project began early last year, but was slowed down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Architects have been working throughout the pandemic and the district’s building committee, comprised of members of the board of directors and administration began meeting in the fall, Superintendent Jon Moody said.

Moody says that the only decision that has officially been made on the new school project is that North Elementary School’s current site is not an option for the district to consider due to the size of the property.

The district has also explored other properties in town, including a site off of U.S. Route 201, a site off of Middle Road and property on the district’s campus near Skowhegan Area High School, which has been ruled out.

“It’s not a straightforward process, nothing is determined” Moody said.

One of the sites that is being looked at is the Margaret Chase Smith School, which currently houses around 190 students in fourth and fifth grades in Skowhegan. To use this site for a new school, the district would need to acquire land adjacent to the school, which is located in a 6F area, which is reserved for recreational purposes.

Moody said that this site was ruled out a few months ago because the property that the district owns sits on about 8 acres, which was a much smaller parcel of land that the district wanted. There’s an additional 16-18 acres of recreational fields next to the school, but because of the 6F designation and all of the complications with changing the designation, it was ruled out.

The site located on the district’s campus near Skowhegan Area High School was also ruled out due to environmental factors and size.

“The determination is that it’s too wet in the location … and there’s not enough size,” Moody said. “If you were to use the Bloomfield Elementary side, there wouldn’t be enough size and you’d lose the softball field unless we could purchase additional land.”

Additionally, the site next to the high school could jeopardize a potential future project to upgrade the high school and Somerset Career and Technical Center.

He said that the state recently reached back out to administration to express their support for the Margaret Chase Smith School site and to let them know that the property could be converted.

If this site were to be used for a new school, the money that might have been used for purchasing land can be used to fund the movement of the fields being lost to the new school.

“Because the site would require the use of additional adjacent land owned by the town, we would need the support of the town to begin that process.  That would include beginning a 6F conversion process to move the current recreation fields (as those have been set aside for recreation under a federal program) to another site owned by the town,” Moody said. “Doing this now allows the conversion process to begin, which would ensure that the (Margaret Chase Smith School) site could be an option should that site be the committee, board and community’s first choice.”

The conversion process, he added, can take up to two years.

“That’s why the Margaret Chase Smith site is a little complicated, because the town owns the land and the select board has to be willing to sell the land to the district, then it has to go to a town meeting for a vote,” Moody said. “The town meeting vote needs to occur prior to the State Board of Education considering site applications for us and that needs to happen now so we can begin the conversion.”

Even if this happens at the town level, the district may still decide to move forward with a different site, but having the purchase and sale agreement allows them to keep their options open.

The item was scheduled for a discussion at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting Tuesday evening but was tabled until the next meeting on Jan. 26.

This step in the process is at the very beginning. The district is working with Stephen Blatt Architects, who they’ve previously worked with on Skowhegan Area Middle School and Mill Stream Elementary School in Norridgewock. The firm has worked on several other school projects, including Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham and Lincoln Middle School in Portland. The firm has received several Excellence in Design awards from both the Maine and New England chapters of the American Institute of Architects.

Deficiencies at North Elementary are many. Classrooms have multiple uses. Privacy is lacking. Space is inadequate for students to rest in the principal’s office or the nurse’s office. Many windows are exposed to the public and shake from traffic going by and closing doors. The art classroom was created using a part of the gymnasium and has no ceiling, and it cannot be used at the same time that gym classes are held.

Exposed pipes are also a problem at the school. Some heaters in classrooms are unreliable and often overheat. The boys’ bathroom is not wheelchair accessible and there are only two bathrooms for a staff of about 41.

In the last two decades, the state has approved 75 projects, though they account for only 30% of the state’s identified needs. Schools are ranked using a points system that evaluates the buildings and grounds, population, and programming and planning. The maximum number of points is 200. North Elementary received a score of 124.60 points.

Additionally, included on the same list of the Department of Education’s Major Capital School Construction Program, which works with school districts to improve the quality and condition of learning facilities for students across the state, are Canaan Elementary, Bloomfield Elementary in Skowhegan, Skowhegan Area High School, and Somerset Technical Center and Margaret Chase Smith School.

The two schools in the district that are not on the list were built after 2000, Moody said. As part of the process, the architects and engineers are assessing all district properties to see what the needs are and what resources are already available.

“It’s important that people know that we’re right at the beginning of this process,” Moody said.

He added that once the architects and engineers give the district the assessment of the current buildings, which will include a recommendation on where a new school should go and what grade levels it should include, it will be turned over to voters.

“We’ll have an informational session and a vote, and then a town vote (if needed),” Moody said.

Should the district pursue the Margaret Chase Smith School property, there would be a town vote needed for the transfer of sale.

Moody added that if following the timeline, groundbreaking on the new project is slated for the spring of 2023, but possibly 2024. He is hoping that no students will be displaced while construction is underway, though no site has been officially selected yet.

MSAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

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