BELFAST, Maine — When the credit card giant MBNA first came to Belfast about 25 years ago, the company built acres of immense office buildings to house 3,000 debt collectors, call center workers and other employees.
Now, there’s a possibility that three of those buildings, last used by Bank of America, may have a very different type of occupant in the future — schoolchildren. The Regional School Unit 71 board of directors is looking into purchasing the three now-vacant buildings for $7 million to $8 million and turning them into a school serving all the district’s kindergarten through second grade students. The district is comprised of the communities of Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville.
If it happened, it would be part of a bigger plan to consolidate — or regionalize — the district’s elementary schools, with a goal of providing an equitable education to all students and saving taxpayer dollars, according to RSU 71.
To get there, the district likely would close the Gladys Weymouth School in Morrill, which now serves pre-kindergarten to first grade students and the Ames School in Searsmont, which serves grades 2 through 5. The Capt. Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast, which now serves grades pre-kindergarten through 5, would become a school for children in grades 3 through 5. The East Belfast Elementary School likely would be used for pre-K students only, according to information presented at an April 26 school board meeting.
But the plan is in preliminary stages and it’s far from being set in stone, said David Crabiel, the school board chair.
“There is a lot that would go into this,” he said Wednesday. “The board hasn’t even deliberated at all, let alone gathered information. It’s going to be a long process. It may be beneficial — it may not be. There’s a lot to look at, and we as the school board will have to weigh all the different parts and decide if it’s the right way to go.”
Still, there is some momentum and excitement around the concept, RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean said at the April 26 meeting.
“This is a big idea,” she said. “It basically involves the answer to the question of what are we going to do about our five elementary schools, four of which are very, very small.”
District officials have been speaking to a commercial real estate company about the idea of leasing to purchase, or purchasing with owner financing, Bank of America buildings 5, 6 and 7. The buildings would house around 300 students and have space for the district’s special education department, central office, adult education, technology department and more. There is a lot that is appealing about this, McLean said.
“Three beautiful buildings that could house 20 [kindergarten through 2nd grade] classrooms as well as conference space. A beautiful kitchen. Performing arts,” she said. “Tons of room outside … plenty of room for playgrounds and other things.”
The buildings are worth a lot more than the school would pay for them and would be much less expensive than building a new school outright, McLean said. Four years ago, the district looked into building a new school to serve the children of Belmont, Morrill and Searsmont. Not including purchasing land, the cost at that time was $25 million, she said.
She said that faculty and staff would not be cut if the move happens. Over time, there would be a “tremendous savings” in operational costs, she said, and the district might be able to do some things the board has been talking about, including the possibility of having a single bus run.
There are a lot of steps before the district could purchase the properties, including a vote by school district residents to determine if they want to close the elementary schools. That likely won’t be an easy decision, especially for those who like the district’s small, local elementary schools and the way they can make education feel warm and personal.
“The communities rightly love their schools. And they’re precious. And they’re effective,” McLean said. “We could do better by our kids. And this would be a way to do that.”
Charlie Grey, a school board member from Belfast, said during the meeting that he is in favor of the idea.
“I think it’s a great part of the future for our district, and we should move forward with it,” he said.
But there could be public relations challenges ahead, he cautioned.
“One of the things that would be a negative, possibly, is that this large piece of property is coming off the tax rolls,” Grey said. “That is a concern, in terms of getting public support behind it.”
But tax implications are not always straightforward, Crabiel said this week. If the district doesn’t purchase the former MBNA buildings, before long it is likely to need to build a new school or invest a lot in renovating the existing schools in Morrill and Searsmont, which would be an expensive undertaking. As well, the board needs to take into account educational benefits when making decisions, too.
“We have to look at more of a broader picture,” he said.
The next step is likely to be the formation of an ad hoc committee to gather more information about purchasing the buildings and consolidating the schools. That committee is likely to include members of the public and people with expertise, such as architects, Crabiel said.
“It’s definitely going to be a long process,” he said.