WATERVILLE — Parents, teachers, and city and school officials spoke up at a public forum Thursday evening about a controversial proposal to build a $6.12 million addition to Waterville Junior High School for grades four and five.

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 Waterville Public Schools Superintendent Eric L. Haley.

“I want to emphasize to everybody here that we’re doing these projects … using CARES relief money,” Haley said. “There are certain stipulations on what you can use that for.”

Those stipulations include expanding space to allow for social distancing requirements.

“We did an analysis of every single classroom space in the district, and we identified problem areas based on current enrollment, what it could handle and what those deficiencies are,” said Doug Frame, Waterville school facilities director.

Two big areas that were identified include the kindergarten wing at the George J. Mitchell School, which is “drastically undersized.” Though, Frame said this is a problem that is currently being addressed.

Another area that was identified was the Albert S. Hall School, where classrooms aren’t much bigger than around 672 square feet in size and many are oddly shaped.

Frame presented to the crowd of about 60 the findings that were discovered after looking at all feasible properties for this project: George J. Mitchell School at 58 Drummond Ave., Albert S. Hall School at 27 Pleasant St., and Waterville Junior High School at 100 West River Road.

The junior high, which school officials are in favor of over the other options, was built in 1977, renovated in 1997 and 1999 and sits on a 43-acre property with a building that fills 69,300 square feet.

Albert S. Hall School was built in 1922, sits on 1.2 acres and has about 43,500 square feet of space. The building was renovated in 2001. The school houses grades four and five, and is the last city school that does not have a campus, or an adequate-sized parking lot and playground.

George J. Mitchell School sits on 27 acres; built in 1969, the building has about 76,100 square feet of space and houses kindergarten through grade three. 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. About 250 students attended Albert S. Hall School during the recently completed school year.

“From my perspective and from the perspective of the design team, the junior high is the only viable location of the three sites we looked at,” Frame said, understanding that a K-5 school is what is preferred for some parents.

“We get that from an education standpoint, in a perfect world, we would try to make that happen,” Frame said. “We just don’t think that is realistic given the parameter and the restraints that we have.”

By adding to the east side of the junior high, more space would be provided and the two entities would be separate from one another. The school would still be “a separate school with a separate entrance and keeps its own identity.”

The Waterville Board of Education must approve any plan the district comes up with for the Albert S. Hall School students. Thursday’s meeting was not an official board meeting. Board members are not required to be present, though many were in attendance.

Teachers from the Hall School were present at Thursday’s forum, and all who spoke were in favor of moving to an addition at the junior high.

“I’m emotional, when I first heard about it I cried, thinking ‘not the Hall School,’ but after talking about it with people and really looking at the positive side, it’s time,” said Jane Lee, a computer technology instructor at the Hall School. “There aren’t enough outlets in the classrooms, there’s not enough space. It’s a great old building, but it’s time.”

Concerns have been raised at previous board meetings about students in grades four and five in the same school or riding the same bus as middle school-aged children. Some fear potential issues, such as bullying. Haley, who previously worked as a superintendent at a K-8 school, said in his experience and after asking other schools, this is not a common problem.

“Research suggests the opposite,” Haley said. “The older students mentor the younger students, and they take great pride in it. That’s one of the reasons why we send graduating seniors through the Mitchell School with their caps and gowns; we want those kids to have the same aspirations.”

Concerns about the bus run were also discussed. The school has two different bus runs in the morning; first for the junior high and high school students and the second for Hall and Mitchell school students.

“The limitations (at the Hall School) have made us strong, and we’re proud and we will always be proud,” said Barbara Jordan, principal at Hall School. “When we think of the opportunities, we have to create them for kids that attend all schools in Waterville, because they deserve it. As a staff we do support the (junior high) building.”

Haley also addressed concerns about not having a school in a more central location in town.

“It might not be convenient if you live two blocks away from the Hall School now, but your son or daughter is going to get a much better education and a lot more opportunities and a lot more things” with the new addition.

Cathy Lovendahl, a teacher at Hall School, spoke in favor of moving to the junior high, citing her excitement about the possibility to have classroom windows that can open, enough electrical outlets to be able to teach where she wants in the classroom, having storage and access to a “proper performing space.”

Additionally, she added that the playground, which is on pavement, has been vandalized with items like condoms and diapers that staff have found.

By adding to the east side of the junior high, spacing needs would be addressed while also keeping the two schools separate entities. Grades four and five would utilize the cafeteria, music room and art room when no other students are there.

One parent spoke up concerned about lunch periods for students, citing that her child does not have enough time to eat lunch and socialize with friends during the period and worries that moving more students over to the junior high will shorten this more.

All new classrooms that are built, Frame added, will be in the 900 to 1,000 square foot range.

Joan Phillips-Sandy, chairperson of the Waterville Board of Education, said that this would not be the final opportunity to ask questions before a vote takes place; at least one other opportunity will happen. Whether that is another forum or special section of a board meeting is to be determined.

The plan must first be approved by the Waterville Board of Education and Waterville Planning Board as any additions to buildings of 2,000 or more square feet require review from the Planning Board.

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