PLEASANT POINT, Maine — Shirley Mitchell has worked at Beatrice Rafferty School on the Passamaquoddy Reservation for more than 30 years, including a 5-year stint as principal. She recently came out of retirement and now teaches first-graders.
When she got the news Wednesday that federal funding — an estimated $18.5 million — would be approved to replace the aging, troubled building, she had a one word response: “Awesome.”
“We definitely need a new one,” said Jack Maloney, a physical education teacher supervising children on the playground. “That’s for sure.”
U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud announced Wednesday that the omnibus budget bill passed in the House of Representatives that same afternoon included funding to replace the Beatrice Rafferty School. The budget bill also was expected to be approved by the Senate by the end of the week.
The bill includes funding for just one Bureau of Indian Education School in the entire country. The amount of the appropriation will be $18.5 million, according to a Pingree spokesman, which will fully fund the project.
“The Beatrice Rafferty School has been on a list of schools that have been targeted for replacement for ten years,” said Pingree and Michaud in a joint statement. Students and staff have been exposed to “dangerous and unsafe conditions including weakened walls and mold.”
“It’s a terrible learning environment for the 125 students and their teachers, but this funding is going to bring an end to those problems and allow the community to build a new school.”
The school serves children in grades K-8 who live on the reservation as well as other Native American children from Calais, Eastport and Perry.
The school is located at one end of the tribal property, with views of Passamaquoddy Bay across the street. It was constructed in the 1970s, and a major addition tacked on in the late 1970s or early 1980s, according to assistant principal Dana Mitchell. He described a litany of building and facilities-related problems the school has experienced in the past 10-15 years.
“It’s not just one thing,” said Mitchell. “It’s a collision of conditions.”
The building has experienced repeated problems related to roofing, exterior walls, and even the foundation. Among the repairs, contractors have refurbished and braced exterior walls, replaced roofs, repointed and refurbished brick veneer and fixed structural issues with the foundation.
Over the years, as leaking roofs caused water damage and mold, the school had mold abatement work done. Ceiling tiles in many places are still stained where the leaks occurred.
“It’s a constant. … This has been ongoing,” Mitchell said of the repairs.
The building is not suited for new technology either, noted principal Michael Chadwick. “Dana works out of a closet,” he added, and there is little storage space.
Unlike schools in other rural communities, the student body is growing. The number of students has grown about 30 percent in the past three years, according to Chadwick, because of young families having children.
“Our population is surpassing the size of the school,” said Chadwick. The school is using a portable classroom with a tunnel leading to it to accommodate the growth spurt.
Chadwick was informed of the good news about the funding on Tuesday evening by Ron Jenkins, superintendent of Maine Indian Education, an agency of Maine’s Native peoples, prior to a meeting of the Pleasant Point School Board. The reaction of the school board, he said, was: “Finally. It’s been a long time.”
The new school will be constructed on 17-20 acres where the tribal offices are now located. In return for giving up tribal land for the new school, the tribe will receive a payment from the federal government, according to Chadwick. The old school building, which is owned by the federal government, will be offered to the tribe as surplus government property. Passamaquoddy Tribal Governor and Chief Clayton Cleaves could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Ground could be broken for the new school later this year, said Chadwick. “We’ve done a lot of work toward this new school. We’ve been waiting for someone to say go.” A lot of the planning and design work has been done, and a project manager has been in place for about a year.
Chadwick notified school personnel of the good news in an email that started with, “This is an email I’ve been waiting to write for a long time,” he recalled.
Pingree is a member of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over this funding. At a hearing last February, she made the case for funding the construction to Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian affairs in the Department of the Interior.