Christian school in violation of fire codes needs more than $150,000 to avoid closure

Posted May 19, 2014, at 7:12 p.m.

​MACHIAS, Maine — A Christian school operating in a church building is exploring options to remain open after fire officials cited the school for being out of compliance with the fire code.

Machias Valley Christian School already has begun the process of organizing as a new, separate legal entity as it explores options to continue operating, school administrator Brian Campbell said Monday.

The school, which has been in operation since 1981, is contained in the building of Machias Valley Baptist Church. It is a mission of the church and serves about 85 students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. The church maintains the building.

The fire inspection was conducted in early April by Machias Fire Chief Joey Dennison, and an unidentified member of the staff of the state fire marshal’s office, Campbell said. School officials were told after the inspection they would receive a report within 30 days, said Campbell. School officials received the report in early May and have 120 days to comply, so students will be allowed to finish out the school year.

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According to the report, the building would need a sprinkler system installed on all floors and fire-rated Sheetrock installed on about 80 percent of the walls — walls previously covered with wood paneling. New windows also would be required in all classrooms.

Those three projects would cost from $150,000 to more than $250,000, according to estimates school officials have received, Campbell said.

Another lesser violation requires an upgraded fire alarm system. All violations would need to be corrected before the school could reopen in the fall.

Dennison was not available for comment Monday.

Rick McCarthy, an assistant state fire marshal, said Monday that Dennison asked state fire officials for assistance in performing the inspection. Dennison was the author of the report, McCarthy said.

The school must be inspected every five years, according to Campbell. A fire inspection five years ago revealed relatively minor compliance issues, he said, and the deficiencies were corrected.

The inspection has no bearing on the church because churches are governed by different fire regulations, according to Campbell.

Members of the church voted 34-4 Wednesday of last week to implement a recommendation of the board of elders to release the school, which will allow it to organize as a separate, nonprofit organization. The church plans to continue to support the school as a mission, Campbell said.

Releasing the school from church oversight will enable the school to recruit leadership from and involve other churches, Campbell explained. The school draws students from Addison to Eastport, he said, but only a small handful are from families who are members of Machias Valley Baptist Church.

The school is governed by a board made up of church members, but the makeup of the board likely will be modified to allow representation from other churches and the community as the school moves forward with organizing as a new legal entity, Campbell explained.

The school is considering options, according to Campbell, who said school officials are seeking a follow-up meeting with fire officials. The options include making the required improvements, constructing a building or purchasing modular classrooms, or buying or leasing a building or other space.

“All kinds of ideas have been thrown out,” Campbell said, including exploring the feasibility of using space at the University of Maine-Machias.

“Right now we’re developing a team of people,” he said, to evaluate the options and “find out where we stand” in terms of each option, its estimated cost and other factors.

“Every and all options are still on the table,” Campbell said, though he said making the improvements to the building as required was a “lower priority” because of the estimated cost compared with the cost of other possible options.

Campbell acknowledged school officials were caught off guard by the outcome of the fire inspection.

“We knew there would need to be improvements,” Campbell said, but not to the extent required by fire officials.

The response from families whose children attend the school has been “supportive,” Campbell said. “They would like us to continue,” though they realize it might be in a different building. The school also has received a “tremendous amount of support from the community,” he added. The nearest other Christian school is in Ellsworth, according to Campbell.

“We’re waiting to see what options are available and what will be the next step,” Campbell said.

 

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