FORT KENT, Maine — A plan to save the St. Francis Elementary School by combining classes and elderly assisted living under one roof is one step closer to reality after gaining unanimous support Tuesday of the legislative panelists reviewing the bill.

Sponsored by Rep. John Martin, a member of the board of directors for School Administrative District 27, the emergency legislation, LD 1048, is aimed at preventing SAD 27 from shutting down the tiny school because of declining enrollments and rising education costs.

It would allow the school district to hand over ownership of the building to the town of St. Francis in exchange for part of the structure to continue being used to educate pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students from the St. Francis and Allagash area.

The town then would convert the remaining portion of the building into assisted living space for elderly residents of the area.

“The majority of the people are in favor of this plan,” Keith Jandreau, a St. Francis resident and SAD 27 board member, testified Tuesday during a public hearing in Augusta before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “We are a small town, and everyone is really rallying together on this.”

The school board last spring began considering closing the school, which serves 32 students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, to save the district an estimated $170,000.

But closing the rural school, 16 miles west of Fort Kent, would mean one-way bus trips of an hour or more for some of the youngsters to the elementary school in Fort Kent.

Those long rides, combined with a fear of losing a central part of their community, prompted a group of concerned St. Francis residents to ask the school board last summer for time to come up with alternatives to closing the school.

“This is a unique and creative way to solve a problem,” Suzan Beaudoin, Maine Department of Education director of school finance and operations, said during her testimony. “We [at the department of education] are quite comfortable with this.”

The proposed legislation would allow St. Francis and SAD 27 to go ahead with their plans without having to go through the lengthy official school-closing process.

“This way they will be part of SAD 27 and can rent part of the school [building] for other uses,” Beaudoin said.

Tim Doak, SAD 27 superintendent, said the district would spend about $40,000 annually to lease the space for the 20 pre-kindergarten to third-grade students in St. Francis.

It is costing the district about $170,000 annually to operate the school, he said.

Beaudoin said there are numerous examples of school districts around the state leasing buildings from municipalities, but this would be the first time there would be separate use within the same building.

“I think this is a no-brainer,” Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said during the committee’s work session on the bill following the public hearing. “It’s ironic now we are turning schools into places for older people to go live, but that is the reality of the state we live in. There is a tremendous opportunity here.”

Citing an increasing demand for elderly housing in Maine, Pouliot said the St. Francis plan “makes perfect sense.”

Several committee members did stress the need for strong language in any proposed lease agreement between the town and the district to ensure the appropriate separation of adults and children for the safety of the students.

“We really want to be sure that [language] is in there,” committee member Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cumberland said. “We are talking about mixed use in a fairly small space.”

Those problems and others related to specific use of the building would be addressed in any lease agreement, Doak said.

Martin does not anticipate any final changes or revisions to the language of LD 1048 and said it could be voted on by the House and Senate later this week or early next week.

“I don’t think there will be any problem with it passing,” Martin said, adding he is confident the governor will sign it into law.

“The committee really loved this plan,” Doak said following the panel’s ought-to-pass vote. “They said this could really be a model for the rest of the state.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.