ST. FRANCIS, Maine — Residents are one step closer to taking over their town’s school building after an overwhelming vote in support of the plan during a special town meeting in St. Francis on Saturday morning.
More than 100 residents packed into the school’s gym and nearly all voted in favor of accepting ownership of the school and entering a one-year lease with SAD 27 for classroom space.
Only one hurdle remains when the SAD 27 board of directors meets Monday to vote on turning the property over to the town.
“I think it will pass,” Benny Nadeau, SAD 27 board member representing St. Francis, said after the town meeting. “And now we have a solid year to look at options for the building.”
For now, a deal has been struck with SAD 27 to use one wing for classes and give the town a year to find a suitable tenant for the 6,400 square feet in the other wing, which would be sealed off this coming winter to reduce heating costs.
SAD 27 has agreed to give the town $45,000 toward the cost of maintaining the school and providing teachers for the prekindergarten through second-grade classes for the 2015-2016 school year.
St. Francis First Selectman Darrell Mitchell estimates the town would need to come up with around $500 on its own to keep the school going next year under the lease agreement.
“It’s a win-win situation with SAD 27,” Mitchell said Saturday. “They have decided they’d close the school [and] this deal will give our kids at least one more year here.”
More importantly, he said, the town now has 12 months of breathing room to come up with a for-profit venture in the soon-to-be vacated wing.
There have been discussion of turning the space into elderly housing, and Mitchell said that plan is still viable assuming town officials can successfully navigate the state and federal regulations governing nursing and assisted living housing.
“We know it will be a lot of red tape,” he said. “It’s not like a flip of a switch.”
Mitchell said he has been talking to Rep. John Martin, a member of the SAD 27 board of directors, who has indicated federal funding may be available to convert part of the building into elderly housing.
Last week a bill to transfer ownership of the local school to this small community passed in the Maine Senate and was signed into law.
Under a unique plan, the town would be authorized to lease part of the building back to School Administrative District 27 and use part of the property in a for-profit venture, such as senior housing. Sponsored by Martin, emergency legislation LD 1048 is aimed at preventing SAD 27 from shutting down the tiny St. Francis Elementary School because of declining enrollments and rising education costs.
The bill, which received full support in the House and Senate, will allow the school district to hand over ownership of the building to the town of St. Francis without having to go through the state’s lengthy official school-closing process.
“If we vote to not accept the building then it’s done,” Mitchell said Saturday before the town meeting. “After the last day of classes SAD 27 will lock the doors, mothball the building and there will be no second chance.”
Not only would the town lose a school, he said, but it would also lose a public gathering spot for community activities, recreation and meetings.
“We can sit back and let that happen or we can take control,” Mitchell said. “I [and the selectmen] are willing to put in the work.”
There are currently 32 students from prekindergarten through second grade attending the school. That number is expected to drop to 20 next year and 10 students the following year, according to School Administrative District Superintendent Tim Doak.
The SAD 27 board began discussions to close the school last summer, but agreed to give a committee of community members time to come up with a plan to save the building.
After Saturday’s vote Colleen Jackson, a teacher at the school and member of that committee, was in tears.
“This means a great deal to us,” she said. “I am so relieved and happy the vote went the way that it did — if a town loses a school, it loses the heart of the community.”