NEWPORT, Maine — Some of the most decrepit school buildings in Maine are one step closer to extreme makeovers — or being replaced, according to the Maine Department of Education.
The department reported Wednesday that it will commit to fixing or totally rebuilding six schools on its School Facilities Priorities list. Of 71 applicants on the list, area schools in Corinth, Sanford, Newport and Fryeburg were chosen to get construction money. The approved school projects include two each in Newport and Sanford.
The announcement came as a huge relief to Newport-area schools superintendent William Braun. Two of his schools topped the list, with Newport Regional Elementary School ranked No. 3 and Nokomis High School No. 6.
Like all other schools on the list, Braun isn’t sure what he will get or what his budget will be. Officials at the Maine Department of Education don’t know either. The department’s construction debt is capped at $110 million. That includes about $95 million the department already has taken on for projects from the last 20 years or so. This means the six projects can’t add more than $15 million of debt per year.
“As debt gets retired there is more and more money available each year. And we won’t have to bond these projects for a few years,” said David Connerty-Marin, Education Department spokesman. “We’ve committed to these six projects, but not a schedule — that depends on the budget and the economy. We can speed up and slow down projects to make sure we don’t get beyond a certain level of debt.”
Each school will undergo a review process to see what makes the most sense: to improve the school or tear it down and replace it. For instance, Newport’s school district has five elementary schools, so it might make sense to build a new, larger elementary school and close three others.
Newport Elementary School made its way to the top because its students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade must walk outside to get from some classrooms to others and to the library, school office or gym. It also is full of asbestos. The school already had to tear down walls full of mold and stick a new roof on the building, which was erected in the 1940s. Tear it to the ground, Braun says.
But Nokomis Regional High School has strong bones, he said. The high school has more technical, rather than structural, problems. For instance, if students in the school plug in too many computers and have too many lights on, the entire building might lose power.
“We keep breaking circuit breakers,” Braun said.
The building also needs a fire alarm system, sprinkler system and more.
“It’s a long process. It won’t happen tomorrow,” Braun said.
The wait, Braun said, will be worth it. “This will make an incredible difference in people’s lives. The environment does have something to do with education quality.”
The No. 1 school on the approved list is Corinth’s Morison Memorial School, which according to the superintendent has a building layout that is not conducive to learning.
The school has no gym or cafeteria. The students must walk to the nearby middle school for their physical education classes. Further, the kitchen is right next to the main entryway, which would block student egress in case of fire, said Daniel Higgins, Regional School District 64 superintendent.
Higgins said Wednesday he was happy that it was no longer a question of if the school would obtain funding, but “a question of when.”
Groundbreaking for the projects likely will happen in the next two to four years, according to Connerty-Marin.
Schools selected to get funds, in order of priority, are: Morison Memorial School in Corinth, Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center, Newport Elementary School, Emerson School in Sanford, Charles A. Snow School in Fryeburg and Nokomis Regional High School.
However, Connerty-Marin said it’s not exactly the schools themselves that were targeted for the money, but the populations they serve. For instance, both Braun and Higgins expect that they might rebuild their elementary schools as larger buildings so they can take students from the other elementary schools in their areas.
School district applications for projects are reviewed by state Department of Education evaluation team members, who conduct site visits and meet with school officials. Applications are ranked by a number of criteria, including unsafe building and site conditions, program-related facility and system deficiencies, enrollment and overcrowding, and programs and planning.
On a scale of 200 points with 200 being the worst, the six schools selected for improvements this year all were above 140.