York Town Hall in York, Maine. Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel | Wikipedia Commons

Interim York school Superintendent Mark McQuillan said “legitimate questions” are raised with regard to a municipal proposal to study whether Coastal Ridge Elementary School can be expanded to allow for town use of Village Elementary School. But he said he’s “rather doubtful” that when all is said and done the idea will stand up to economic scrutiny.

Meanwhile, members of the School Committee are taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposal, saying the ball is in the town’s court — but they agree that it’s a concept that has been kicking around for a long time.

Town Manager Steve Burns has suggested the town spend at least $50,000 in the fiscal year 2019 budget for a professional study. This study would look at what it would cost to renovate Village Elementary School into a usable space for town hall and perhaps other functions. At the same time, the study would determine if it’s financially feasible to move all elementary-aged children into an expanded Coastal Ridge Elementary School.

The town has to find a solution in the next several years to the current overcrowded and unsuitable Town Hall – whether it’s expanding on the current site, which sits on First Parish Church property, building an annex or building a whole new facility.

In any event, Burns said last week, “it makes logical sense to see if this option (retrofitting Village Elementary) is feasible before we proceed down another path.”

The idea of a combined single elementary school goes back to at least 1998, said James Amoroso, director of finance and operations. He said at that time, a committee investigated the facilities needs of all four schools — including an expansion of CRES for six new classrooms, pegged at the time at $2.5 million. The study indicated that CRES would be at capacity with a K-4 population of 385 with extended kindergarten — coincidentally the exact number of students currently enrolled there. “So we are at capacity,” Amoroso said.

That same year, he said, there was a ballot measure seeking the $2.5 million funding and it was turned down by voters.

McQuillan, who is retired after a professional career as a school-level and state education official, said he has concerns that the costs of putting the elementary population under one roof at CRES may be prohibitive. He said there is currently unused classroom space at VES, which houses students in grades K-1, and that may have contributed to the idea for a study.

But he said the school district is already making plans to offer preschool programs, once there is support for the increased budget costs. One idea that the school district is considering for next fall is a “beginnergarten” to give 5-year-old children who need more time to develop an extra year before starting kindergarten. Further, he said, the Maine Department of Education is “making it known what is in the hopper for schools,” and this includes in-school programming for 3- and 4-year-olds who have developmental disabilities.

All such programs would be housed at VES if the configuration stays the same, he said, thus likely filling those extra classrooms in the coming years — or adding to costs of an addition at CRES.

“So there’s lots of permutations to this that would invite a much closer look,” McQuillan said. “Actually, on the face of it it’s a reasonable idea. A study would be very illuminating. If you want to take a look at what it would take to build out CRES, it might be worth knowing what it would cost.”

The school department last year proposed a $50,000 facilities study for all four schools, but it was cut during the budget process. School Committee Chairwoman Julie Eneman said when the state calculates whether a district is a minimum receiver, one of the factors it looks at is staff. So there’s little economy of scale with four schools in four different parts of town.

“There’s no judgment here. That’s just the way it is,” Eneman said. “So that morphed into a conversation about what would happen if we move into just three buildings,” which led to the decision to seek funding for a study last year.

She said she wanted parents and community members to know that the committee has not made a decision one way or the other on this study.

“We have to see what the data is in the end,” she said. “I don’t want people panicking. I don’t want people to assume there’s a plan to get rid of VES because that’s not the case. All that’s happening is the town wants to investigate that possibility.”

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