HAMPDEN, Maine — Town officials and representatives of SAD 22 continue to work on a mutually beneficial reuse plan for the existing Hampden Academy with both sides hopeful of a compromise.
Still, each side brought along a lawyer at their last joint meeting.
“It was a civil and professional discussion,” SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons said of last week’s meeting with the town.
Added Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard: “I believe there is middle ground. I think everyone at the table is reasonable. We all want to come to the best resolution possible.”
Earlier this year, the SAD 22 board of directors voted to retain the existing Hampden Academy for educational use once a new high school opens in the fall of 2012. Some town officials were upset by the decision because they believe the school district failed to offer the property to the town first.
According to Lessard, of the more than 40 district schools throughout the state that have closed in the last five years, more than 75 percent have been offered to the community in which the school is located.
SAD 22 officials insist they have done nothing wrong and said all three district towns — Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh — were involved in the discussion about reuse. Although a number of possible educational uses have been discussed — including a magnet school and a collaborative facility with University of Maine’s Foster Center for Student Innovation — nothing has been settled on.
“I think everybody has their own perspective of what might be the best plan,” Lessard said. “The further we go, the more that will clarify. But there are some territory issues in play.”
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 ahead of 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.
Any time a school closes, the district and town have to decide what to do with the soon-to-be vacated educational facility. The host town usually has the right of first refusal, largely because it provides numerous public services to the school at no cost and the school is a tax-exempt property.
If the school district builds a magnet school or innovation center or anything else, there likely would be some revenue generation. Lessard said she doesn’t blame SAD 22 for wanting to pursue alternative revenue streams, even if the town received some of that money.
“For the town, it’s not about the money. This property is right in the middle of the community. The initial vision was a community center with housing, shops and other uses. Adding that element to the middle of the community could tie into the school development.”
Lessard said the sentiment she has heard from Winterport and Newburgh is that they don’t care what happens to the existing Hampden Academy as long as their towns’ residents don’t have to subsidize that reuse.
SAD 22 officials plan to hold a public meeting in January to update the reuse process. They also will meet again with town officials in the next month. Lessard said there is time for compromise, but a decision would help matters.
“If it sits empty for any period of time, someone has to heat it and maintain it,” she said. “That costs money.”