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Residents to decide future of Stockton school on June 11 ballot

By Stephanie Grinnell | May 24, 2019
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Stockton Springs Town Manager Courtney O'Donnell speaks to residents about options for Stockton Springs Elementary School, as Selectmen Peter Curley and Tom Frasier look on.

Searsport — What was supposed to be a joint public hearing with Searsport and Stockton Springs officials morphed into a mostly one-town discussion about Stockton Springs Elementary School May 23, as Searsport selectmen were unable to meet a quorum of members.

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway noted there has been board upheaval following the recent death of Selectman Jack Merrithew, but said another meeting will be scheduled in coming weeks.

Stockton Springs Town Manager Courtney O’Donnell took the lead on the presentation Thursday evening at Searsport Elementary School. She said Regional School Unit 20 has offered the shuttered elementary school to both towns at no cost and a vote has been scheduled for June 11 to accept or decline that offer.

“This is important to remember: The vote is only to accept the building,” O’Donnell said, adding if it is accepted by one or both of the towns, additional input will be gathered before anything else is done.

She outlined options and — cost estimates where possible — based on a “yes” vote that include fixing the building, demolishing the entire or part of the structure and working with investors/developers.

“We know what some of the known costs are but these are estimates,” O’Donnell cautioned.

The school, built in 1975, was closed in April 2017 but initially continued to see some community use. It has been completely vacant since June 2017. According to a mold assessment report from Air Quality Management Services Inc. dated Feb. 14, 2019, mold growth was discovered inside the building in August 2018. A month later, AQM was retained to study the extent of the mold problem. The company determined the school is a “condition 3” — “the worst possible level of mold,” O’Donnell said.

Recommendations included in the AQM report include hiring a mold remediation company to remove all of the sheetrock and other materials covering walls and ceilings, all carpets and flooring, and all pipe insulation. Cleaning of all other surfaces is required and testing must be done to verify eradication of the mold.

The school district received four bids for the work that range from $145,850 to $385,000. If one or both of the towns were to accept the school, it would fall to the town(s) to pay for mold remediation. Stockton Springs’ current insurance company refuses to insure the building because of the mold, O’Donnell said, so another insurance policy would have to be retained at an estimated cost of $1,500-$2,000 per year for liability coverage as long as the structure is standing.

“The insurance money would come from the budget,” O’Donnell said, adding the administrative portion can absorb the additional funding without a problem. No other funding has been set aside in the municipal budget for the school, which means a special town meeting will be required to approve any spending beyond liability insurance.

“I wish there were more of you, to be honest,” O’Donnell said to the crowd of about 50. “Because the weight of this is giant. … We’re talking hundreds of thousands.”

Demolition of part or all of the building and retention of the nearly 10 acres of land would cost less. O’Donnell said she received a rough estimate of between $50,000 and $80,000 to demolish the building and noted it is not the mold at issue with demolition, but asbestos. There are some known asbestos floor tiles in the building and there could be more asbestos elsewhere, she said.

“The land itself does hold a significant amount of value,” O’Donnell said.

If both towns vote to accept the school, a legal agreement would be drafted outlining cost-sharing and use, O’Donnell said. She said she did not think Searsport, if it accepted the building and Stockton did not, would have to pay property taxes to Stockton.

Possible uses

Residents offered suggestions for use of the building post-cleaning. George Skala said he would like to see it become a trade school, and a neighbor of the property suggested a farmers’ market. Another resident speculated about the interest from Maine Ocean School, but O’Donnell said, “They’ve gone in a different direction at this point.”

O’Donnell said the town’s Fire Department is seeking a new location and might be interested in the property as well, though she said few details have been discussed as yet.

“I would say it’s a little premature,” she said, later adding it will be years before a new fire station could be built.

Stockton Springs resident and RSU 20 Board of Directors member Denise Dakin asked if the town’s recently installed solar panels could cover the energy used by the school.

“Yes,” O’Donnell said. “We make way more energy than we use.”

A developer has expressed interest in the building, whether it is owned by the town or the school district, but O’Donnell said discussions “have gone next to nowhere” at this point because the ownership has not yet been decided. She said the developer is “not scared away by the mold.” Stockton Springs resident Meg Haskell asked if the developer was the one who converted Frankfort Elementary School to assisted living units, which O’Donnell confirmed.

“Given where our school is located, it would be sort of ludicrous for it to belong to someone else,” Haskell said.

Another option to consider is turning the building into a business incubator, as has been done in Orland, she said. That school was in much better condition to start, O’Donnell noted, but is now home to nine businesses.

Stockton Springs selectmen were asked to explain why they are recommending the town accept the school. Betsy Bradley said it’s all about community for her.

“I’d love to see some kind of community space there,” she said, adding there are hiking trails and a playground in place already. “The potential is really huge. For me, personally, there’s no question.”

Selectman Peter Curley said he was previously against gaining ownership of the school but said he can see the value of the land to the town.

“I personally think it would behoove the town to come up with the money,” he said.

Curley said input from residents will be vital, because there are so many options to consider. Selectman Tom Frasier put his thoughts simply: “So we could have control over what happens to it.”

No cost estimates for restoration or demolition will be included on the ballot question, O’Donnell noted, because the town is not seeking to spend money.

“If it’s a no, we’re done, we all go home,” she said.

If the towns do not accept the school, the school district would be responsible for disposing of the property.

Absentee ballots are available at Searsport and Stockton Springs town offices and voting will take place at the polls Tuesday, June 11, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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