Old School Debate

Posted Aug. 12, 2010, at 6:17 p.m.

The arguments in favor of building new, energy-efficient schools designed to match modern educational methods are compelling. But one of the victims of such progress often is the old school replaced by the new building. The old school, once the source of community pride and part of the community center, may be relegated to less than its best use. It then may be seen as sad evidence of community decline.

Planning for the old school’s fate before the new building project is approved is the best course. Even more important is planning for a use that enhances the community. But it’s hard to hit both targets.

As the new $51.6 million Hampden Academy takes shape, the town and SAD 22 district officials are at odds over the existing high school’s fate. The school board recently voted to retain the building for educational purposes, as is its right under Maine law. But Hampden town officials believe there was a tacit understanding that the building would be given to the town for use as a community center.

Maine educational law stipulates that schools no longer used by districts for educational purposes must be offered to the host municipality. The municipality can decline to take possession, sell the building or retain it for any number of uses.

A casual tour of cities and towns around Maine reveals a host of fates for those old schools, including senior citizen and day care centers, arts centers with classrooms leased as studio space, subsidized housing and high-end apartments. Some look shabby, some reflect the glory of a grander era. Most fall somewhere between. Some municipalities have taken the difficult step of demolishing old school buildings that were in poor shape; mid-20th century structures, generally speaking, were not built to standards that would encourage renovation.

Recent developments in Ellsworth reveal the issues at play. The City Council is considering demolishing one of two former elementary schools that reverted to the city when the local regional school unit was formed. The property would become a park. The other former elementary school is being operated by the local YMCA as a senior center. The Y also makes space available to other groups. A committee is studying uses for the building, City Manager Michelle Beal said, and is expected to issue recommendations next year.

The senior center makes sense, Ms. Beal said, because the services it provides are not available elsewhere in the city. The city could solicit purchase bids for the building or could issue a formal request for proposals from private groups, which would give it control over how it is used. Ms. Beal said there is support, though, for the city retaining ownership.

The Hampden conflict seems to have been avoidable. Before the districtwide vote on the project, the school board should have clearly asserted and voted on its plans for the old school so there was no misunderstanding. And the town might have presented its proposal for using the building to the board. A mutually satisfactory resolution is possible, but more than anything, the two boards ought to act so the building remains a vibrant, vital part of the community’s life.

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