WALES — A public hearing held by the Regional School Unit 4 board of directors Wednesday night drew a contingent of Litchfield residents who said they are not happy with a proposal to close Libby-Tozier and Sabattus Primary schools and construct a new addition at Oak Hill Middle School.

The entire cost of the new building — no more than $31,687,216 — would be borne by residents of Wales, Sabattus and Litchfield, who are facing a referendum on whether to allow the RSU 4 board to issue bonds for the project on Aug. 9. The project is not eligible for state capital construction funding, according to board of directors chairperson Robert English.

“It’s a disaster,” stated Gary Parker, the Litchfield Select Board chairman, at the start of the hearing.

About 35 people turned out for the meeting, which began with a summation of the upcoming referendum by Assistant Superintendent Kathy Martin, followed by a presentation on the addition by the architectural firm hired for the project. The meeting was opened to questions from the public about 20 minutes into the meeting.

All of the questions and comments came from Litchfield residents and nobody spoke in favor of the plan.  Most of the questions and objections revolved around possible alternatives to building a new addition, using existing facilities, building capacities and the potential for cost overruns. Some of the exchanges were heated.

Regional School Unit 4 board of directors field questions from residents at public hearing on proposed new school addition. Christopher Wheelock/Sun Journal

If approved, the project would go out to bid in the summer of 2023 with a projected construction period of two years. The new addition, which would essentially be another school, would be ready for the fall of 2025.

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Libby-Tozier School and Sabattus Primary School are aging schools that need millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades to meet state standards for school buildings. In fact, the same two schools were slated for closure 10 years ago and discussion about constructing an addition to Oak Hill Middle School was on the table at a similar meeting, as reported by the Sun Journal.

No further public hearings are planned, leaving residents roughly six weeks to make a decision before the referendum.

Oak Hill Primary is the newest of the district’s buildings and has access to public sewer and water, which the two schools targeted for closure do not. Residents have access to the current and projected costs of repairing and operating the two schools, although some at the meeting questioned the estimates, calling them inflated.

The school board estimates show the cost of operating and maintaining the two schools at more than $1.3 million per year, with anticipated repairs and upgrade costs estimated at $10.4 million.

The new school would have students in grades two through four in the current building, with grades five through eight moving into the new addition. The schools would have staggered times and separate entrances to each building, which one citizen commented posed a potential security risk.

As time ticked toward 7:30 p.m., there were still people who wanted to speak, but the meeting was adjourned for a planned school board meeting. One of the last speakers asked why the referendum was being held in August, when voter turnout is traditionally very low and not during the general election in November. English explained the August date was timed with the state bond bank schedule and that a November start would delay the project and potentially lead to higher costs.

“I think $31 million right now added to the taxpayer base that we have to pay is just a bad idea,” said the final resident to speak, a comment that drew a round of applause. Outside Oak Hill High School, the debate continued, with discussion of leaving RSU 4 or switching to another RSU as one of the options floated.

“We can stand here and argue about numbers all night long,” said Parker to the small crowd. “It doesn’t matter. But what does matter, if you feel really strongly about this, you need to talk to your neighbors, you need to talk to your friends and you need to get people to come out and vote against this in August, because that date’s not going to change.”

RSU4 School Board


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