The side portion of Waterville Junior High School is shown Monday with a parking lot at the school off West River Road in Waterville. Officials are considering a $6.12 million addition to junior high for fourth- and fifth-graders to attend starting next year. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — A proposal to build a $6.12 million addition to Waterville Junior High School for fourth and fifth graders to attend starting next year has parents asking lots of questions and requesting a public forum to express their concerns.

Schools Superintendent Eric Haley said Monday that parents have contacted him to say they think the addition should instead be constructed at the George J. Mitchell School, an elementary school, as they see it as more appropriate than putting fourth and fifth graders with middle school-aged students.

“I’m willing to put more work into showing it is or isn’t a viable option,” Haley said of the Mitchell School idea.

Now, fourth and fifth graders attend the Albert S. Hall School on Pleasant Street, located in a largely residential area. It is the last city school that doesn’t have a campus or an adequate-sized parking lot and playground, according to Haley.

Particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, it is necessary students and staff have more space. An addition on the east side of the junior high on West River Road would provide for that space but keep the two schools separated. Fourth and fifth graders would use the cafeteria, music room and art room, but not when the older students are there, according to Haley.

“It will still be a separate school with a separate entrance and keep its own identity,” he said of the addition.

The proposed two-story, 18,000-square-foot addition, with 10,000 square feet on the first floor and 8,000 on the second, would be built with federal CARES Act funds that must be spent by September 2023, according to Haley. Building an addition to the Mitchell School would significantly reduce the size of the playground there, whereas the junior high site allows for a large playground, he said. About 250 students attended the Hall School this year.

The plan must be approved by the Waterville Board of Education and Waterville Planning Board.

“Additions to existing buildings, attached or detached, of 2,000 or more square feet of building footprint, require Planning Board review,” City Planner Ann Beverage confirmed Monday.

A contractor has not been hired for the proposed junior high addition, but the schools hired A.E. Hodsdon Consulting Engineers, a Waterville engineering firm, to sketch out the plan. “We’ve given them what we’d like, and they’re laying it out for us,” Haley said.

Carrie LeVan, the mother of three children who attend the Mitchell, Hall and Waterville Junior High schools, contacted Haley to express several concerns about building at the junior high, including the speed at which plans are progressing without much community input.

Haley said she recommended having a public forum to discuss everyone’s concerns, and he thinks that is a great idea. He plans to schedule a meeting soon for that purpose, he said.

“Frankly, I’d rather have fourth and fifth at the Mitchell School,” he said.

Haley said he understands parents’ concerns about having younger children with older students.

“I do get it,” he said. “I have children. I know what it is like to be protective of them.”

He said the plan is to not have fourth and fifth graders ride the bus with older students or have them together inside the schools.

“It’s our design at this point in time, to have little, if any, mixing,” he said. “We understand parents fears about age appropriateness.”

The idea of building an addition onto the Mitchell School was dismissed out-of-hand because it would significantly reduce the size of the playground at the Mitchell School and there are other areas of concern, including a stream that runs through the middle of the campus, according to Haley. The Junior High has space for a larger playground, he said.

LeVan said she thinks putting fourth and fifth graders at an addition at the Mitchell School would be more efficient for staff members who move back and forth between elementary schools. It would also eliminate having to pay for two school principals and some staff and ensure that elementary school-aged students would not be grouped with older students.

LeVan said trying to fit all the students into the cafeteria at different times would force short dining times and it would be difficult to schedule use of the gymnasium, art and music rooms for 250 more students at the junior high.

“Those rooms are being used all the time by sixth through eighth graders,” LeVan said. “How do you squeeze in the fourth and fifth? Right now at the Hall School, if it rains, the students can go to the gym for recess. My brain is just trying to process this information.”

Another parent, Luke Brooks-Shesler, shares the same concerns with LeVan. Both are members of the PTA and say alternating between the elementary schools just for meetings, fundraisers and other events is inefficient and they can’t imagine what it is like for teachers and staff who also must move back and forth.

“Number one, moving the fourth and fifth grades to the junior high does not solve the inefficiencies of having separate buildings for kindergarten through grade three, and fourth and fifth,” Brooks-Shesler said.

He said he wants to make clear that the PTA itself is not taking a stand on the school building project.

“The role of the PTA is to support administrators, teachers and students,” he said. “It’s very important for us to have a positive relationship with all of them, which we do. It has been through my engagement with the PTA that I’ve come to realize how incredibly inefficient having elementary schools divided into two buildings is.”

LeVan and Brooks-Shesler, who has children ages 6 and 8, said they are concerned about having younger children potentially mix with the older ones. Brooks-Shelser said he loves his children’s bus drivers and is grateful for them, but he does not like the idea of his fourth grader riding with junior high students.

“I’m not doing that,” he said. “I’d probably drive my fourth grader to school.”

Haley said, however, that the plan is to have the fourth and fifth graders ride separately from junior high students as they do now. The two schools will have different start and end times, as they do now.

Brooks-Shesler and LeVan also expressed concern about the construction project’s not going out to bid. Haley said school officials asked for, and received, permission to waive the bid process because of short timelines given to the schools to spend the money.

“I had to inform the (Waterville Board of Education) and ask permission from the commissioner of education and the commissioner of the Bureau of General Services, which I did,” Haley said later Monday in an email. “This is the reason we do not have to go out to bid.”

Asked what would happen to the Hall School when it becomes vacant, Haley said the city owns the buildings and he assumes it would figure out the best use for the building, although that is a ways off.

A few years ago, school officials discussed the idea of moving fourth and fifth graders to an addition at the junior high, with some opposition from parents.

Meanwhile, Sheridan Construction of Fairfield has been hired to build a 100-by-100 square-foot storage building at the junior high to hold desks, bookcases and other items to be taken out of classrooms to make more space for social distancing, according to Haley. The building will be constructed at the north end of the parking lot closest to West River Road and is part of the $6.12 million CARES Act funding for the school addition.

And Haley said that, as part of the need for more space to social distancing, a $1.7 million plan to reduce eight kindergarten classrooms at the Mitchell School to six is in the works, making those six rooms larger than the current eight. Also, three more classrooms would be added to the kindergarten section, which would result in a total of nine. That project also is being funded with CARES Act money.

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