After Stockton Springs Elementary School closed for good in June 2017, the pre-kindergarten pupils who were the last to use it packed their bookbags and left its classrooms and hallways behind.
The school closed and was quiet for perhaps the first time since it was built in 1975. But as it turned out, it wasn’t completely empty. Mold lived there, blooming undisturbed for more than a year on carpets, furniture, doors, bookshelves and more.
And by August 2018, when a Regional School Unit 20 official came to the school after a power outage and noticed the air quality was bad, the mold had become a significant problem requiring professional, and expensive, remediation. An assessment done in the fall recommended the school essentially be gutted, then intensively cleaned, to manage the mold.
When district officials opened bids to do the remediation work April 9, the lowest came in at $145,850. That same day, RSU 20 school board directors voted to offer the mold-ridden school to the towns of Stockton Springs and Searsport — the communities that make up the school district — for free.
Next month, voters in those communities will decide if they want to accept this gift or tell the school district thanks, but no thanks.
“The school does have a serious mold problem,” Stockton Springs Town Manager Courtney O’Donnell said. “That’s really one of the bigger issues. If the town says ‘Yes, we vote to accept,’ there will be a thorough process to figure out what to do with the property. Everything from fix the building to demolish the building and retain the land.”
Last week, more than 50 people attended a public hearing in Stockton Springs to talk about what to do with the school. Searsport will hold its own public hearing on the matter at 6 p.m. Friday at the town office. Both O’Donnell and Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said they hope lots of voters turn out to the polls Tuesday, June 11, to cast their ballots deciding the school’s fate.
“I’m really happy it’s not a town manager decision. I think the selectmen are happy it’s not a selectmen decision,” Gillway said. “Decisions like that are always better to leave to the people.”
It will be the second time in two years that voters in Stockton Springs and Searsport have been asked to decide what will become of the school. In April 2017, voters decided overwhelmingly to close it, after several towns left the school district and created enough room in the newer Searsport Elementary School for all the students to fit in one building.
At the time, district officials indicated that the move could save the towns $70,000 per year and bring in additional revenue if the building is sold or leased. But it seems now that the school is more of a liability to the district than a possible source of income.
Tony Bagley, a longtime RSU 20 school board member from Searsport, said the mold was not a problem when children were attending the school. Now that it is, he said fixing it doesn’t make financial sense to the district, which has a few choices: to offer it to any community within the school district, to put it up for sale or to demolish the building and retain ownership of the land.
“The reality of what a school building is actually worth to somebody — that’s what really made it unviable for the RSU to start remediating,” Bagley said. “You’re probably not going to get out of it what you put into it. … The district is not interested in spending the money to remediate the building. It’s up to the townfolks.”
If voters in the towns decide to accept the school, it doesn’t obligate them to do anything in particular with it. In her presentation at the public hearing, O’Donnell detailed the process and some of the options that the towns have. She said that the school is about 23,000 square feet and includes a gymnasium, kitchen and classrooms. It sits on a 9.5-acre parcel that includes a playground, a field and a small shed. The property is currently tax exempt, because it belongs to the school district, but the town assesses the building at $1.527 million, a valuation that will “drop dramatically” by more than $1 million, she said, because of the mold damage.
If both towns want the building and land, they will need to work together to agree on what to do with it. If just one town votes to accept it, that town will bear alone the future responsibility and cost of the school, she said.
If Stockton Springs voters want to accept it — an outcome that is recommended by the Stockton Springs Select Board — potential options include fixing the building, demolishing the building but retaining the land, demolishing part of the building or working with investors and developers to determine the future use of the school property.
“Ultimately it’s up to the town to decide what they want to do with it,” O’Donnell said, adding that the severity of the mold may narrow the options. “That building could have been used for a variety of other things, and it’s a shame that it went the way it did.”