STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — Voters here will go to the polls next month to decide whether they want to authorize the Select Board to sell the former town elementary school.
The 1970s building is known to have a mold problem and town officials say it would cost between $100,000 and $225,000 for remediation. A meeting held earlier this month to discuss the school drew more than 60 people, according to Town Manager Jennifer King, who said most seemed disinclined to authorize its sale.
“I can see potential,” said Leslie Devine, who lives close to the property. “I like to investigate before I make a big decision. It feels like I’m being asked to make a big decision and then investigate.”
It’s not the first vote that Stockton Springs has made regarding the Church Street property. After Regional School Unit 20 board members learned the extent of the mold and the potential cost of the remediation, they offered the school as a free gift to the towns of Searsport and Stockton Springs.
Last June, Searsport voters turned it down. But in Stockton Springs, voters said yes.
“We took it as is,” King said. “We were told we couldn’t enter the building because the mold was so terrible.”
It was bad, she said, but further tests indicated the problem wasn’t as extensive as initially reported. Town officials have made improvements. They fixed the leak in the ceiling, which caused mold spores to spread, King said. They hauled out everything from moldy library books to gym equipment to food that had been left in the cafeteria. They also aired out the building, by opening the doors in the summer and fall, and started running an air-exchange unit.
“We have not turned that off,” she said, adding that these efforts likely could have lessened the problem if enacted earlier. “[The school district] just didn’t do it any justice. They failed the people who pay taxes to keep that school standing, because that school would have been a wonderful asset to the town, had they not let the mold grow.”
Residents Ryan King and Sarah Faragher, who also live close to the school, believe it still could be an asset. They cite Orland as a positive example of how an abandoned school can be redeveloped. The former elementary school there has become the Orland Community Center, which is home to a commercial community kitchen, a fitness center, event space and rental office and business space.
“The selectpeople at the meetings came across as being very afraid of a disaster happening at the school,” Faragher said. “They’re acting from a place of fear versus the possibilities.”
Faragher and Ryan King were among about 15 who volunteered to serve on a strategic planning committee to look at potential uses of the school if voters choose to keep it.
“We want to make sure we as a town make the right decision and not rush it,” he said. “Make sure we’re not short-sighted.”
But Jennifer King, the town manager, said that the board of Select Board has asked for this vote as part of the process of determining the school’s future.
“It’s a stepping stone,” she said.
Last fall, residents were surveyed about what they wanted to do with the school, and the majority of the 87 who responded said they wanted to sell some or all of the property, she said. Multiple prospective buyers have inquired about the property, including a man who is interested in creating an assisted-living facility there.
“He has been waiting patiently for the town to make its decision,” she said. “That’s another reason we have been trying to move forward.”
No matter what voters decide, she hopes that they come out to the polls in force on Tuesday, March 3.
“Whether it’s a yes or no, I want it to be strongly voiced, so that we all can move forward with the decision,” Jennifer King said. “So we can figure out together what’s best.”