HAMPDEN, Maine — Some town councilors are upset over a recent decision by SAD 22 officials to retain the current Hampden Academy for educational purposes once a new school is built.
Council Chairman Matthew Arnett voiced strong opinions at a meeting this week about the decision, which he said was a departure from what a majority of townspeople wanted.
“When an existing school building is closed as a result of building a new school to replace it, the usual and customary procedure in Maine is for the school district to transfer the property to the town where it exists,” Arnett said at Monday’s council meeting.
Arnett said that host communities provide numerous public services to the schools at no cost and noted that schools are tax-exempt properties. He said he thought the school would be turned into a multiuse town center that would mix residential, commercial and public uses.
“The town of Hampden has bent over backwards to help the school district create the new high school,” he said. “Now it’s time for the school district to help the town create a new town center.”
Councilor Thomas Brann said he agreed with everything Arnett said.
“From the beginning, a town center was the whole concept, but I guess they wanted to do something different,” he said of SAD 22 officials.
Last year, voters approved a $51.6 million construction project for a new Hampden Academy. Site work has been completed and construction is under way with a completion date expected before the fall 2012 school year.
The project includes $45.4 million in funding from the state Department of Education and $6.2 million that will be paid for by taxpayers in the three towns in SAD 22.
Last month, the board of directors for SAD 22, which comprises the towns of Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh, voted to retain the current Hampden Academy for future education purposes rather than sell the property.
SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons said last month’s unanimous vote culminated more than a year of discussion, but he also stressed that the process is not complete.
“We’re still looking at a partnership with the town that could address some of their needs,” Lyons said. “The [town center] option was looked at along with a lot of other things. It might have been the preference of [Arnett], but the board had to make the determination to retain [the property] for educational purposes. That’s what they did.”
Peter Buzzini, a member of the SAD 22 board of directors who chaired the ad hoc reuse committee, said a number of possible educational reuse options are being explored. One would be to work with the University of Maine’s Foster Center for Student Innovation to create a learning center. Another would be to create a magnet school.
Buzzini also stressed that the reuse should reflect the wishes of all three towns within SAD 22.
“It’s about finding the best use of the space, not just for Hampden, but for Winterport and Newburgh as well,” Buzzini said. “We have to be sensitive to other communities’ needs and desires.”
The next step, according to Lyons, is to secure grant money that would pay for a feasibility study.
Arnett said he has invited officials from Newburgh and Winterport, as well as SAD 22 representatives, to participate in further discussions about the potential reuse.
“We do not believe, once the new high school is complete, that additional expansion of educational capacity will be needed for many years,” he said.
Lyons said he certainly would be open to having a conversation.