As SAD 61 moves CRES project along, Sebago to consider withdrawal

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Could SAD 61 become a three-town district?

Quite possibly.

In a letter dated last Friday, Oct. 23, Sebago Town Manager James Smith III informed Superintendent of Schools Alan Smith that the board of selectmen had voted unanimously to explore withdrawal from SAD 61.

The decision was based on SAD 61 formally voting last week, during a school board meeting, to move ahead with the proposed $9.6 million construction/renovation of Crooked River School.

Superintendent Smith and some directors tried to settle worries expressed by Sebago residents regarding the possible closure of their community school if CRES is expanded, leaving the door open to transport Sebago students to either Bridgton or Casco facilities. While School Board chairman Janice Barter and director Phil Shane both noted that no formal SES closure talks had taken place, nor are any scheduled, school officials could not offer up any guarantees — as one resident sought, 20 years, the length of the bond to fund the CRES project — that such talk could occur in future years.

While Superintendent Smith and the school board pitched the premise that the two matters are separate issues, some like Sebago Director Joe McMahon were not buying the rhetoric. At last week’s board meeting at Stevens Brook Elementary School, McMahon questioned some figures being used and later was the lone vote against moving the CRES project to the next phase — a public hearing on Dec. 1 at Lake Region High school at 7 p.m., and a public referendum on Dec. 8 in all four towns. Fellow Sebago Director Ben Bowditch abstained.

The vote led Sebago selectmen to look into what it would take for the town to leave SAD 61. One major obstacle would be paying its share of existing school debt. At a previous meeting, Superintendent Smith said the withdrawal process could take up to two years, which would mean if the Crooked River project passes in December, Sebago would be responsible for part of the $9.6 million. Smith said the state has a formal process the town would be required to follow. However, a town committee or selectmen could informally compile figures and determine if withdrawal is a good option and/or financially palatable.

Superintendent Smith is scheduled to go before the Sebago selectmen on Nov. 17 to present the CRES project.

“I suspect I won’t receive a lot of questions about the project,” he said in wake of the recent letter. “I’m sure the focus will be on Sebago Elementary.”

Tuesday’s stop: Bridgton

The traveling CRES PR show made a stop in Bridgton Tuesday night as Superintendent Smith gave Bridgton selectmen an overview of the proposed project.

With renovations and new construction, Crooked River could house a maximum of 350 students, Grades 3-5. Smith noted that school projects look to meet the educational needs for the next 50 years. So while student population is presently in the 200-plus range, it would offer space to add Pre-K. Barter noted that part of the problem SAD 61 has had in regards to closing CRES and now seeking to reopen the facility and add on were bad enrollment projections it received from outside study firms.

One area directors could expand as they look to the future is the auditorium. If the price is right — meaning if construction bids on the proposed Crooked River School project check fall on the low side — a larger auditorium could be built to accommodate 350. Architect Stephen Blatt told directors if the auditorium’s size increases to house 150 to 250 students, the cost would be about $130,000. If the size is moved up to house 350, it could cost $240,000.

Selectman Paul Hoyt questioned the need to increase the auditorium’s size since no other facility in the district — other than the high school — has an auditorium.

Exactly Smith’s point. Again, if the added price can be assumed by other savings, Smith feels the auditorium would benefit the school district — it could hold professional development workshops there — as well as the community — a place for events like community theatre.

“We feel we are getting good bang for the buck” with this project, Smith added, pointing out that the renovation/construction at Stevens Brook 17 years ago was $7.3 million. SAD 61 has just three years left to pay on that note.

Other debt scheduled to be retired includes the portable unit at Songo Locks (savings of $95,000 after this year); $230,000 for the high school field project and Middle School renovation, two years away; $365,000 for Stevens Brook construction, three years out.

There is no state money involved. Smith also noted that the project is severely needed to help ease overcrowding at Songo Locks School.

Selectman Ken Murphy then shifted the talk’s direction, asking the superintendent if there has been any discussion regarding the future of Bridgton Memorial School. He wondered why an apparent stalemate has occurred.

There have been talks in the past about SAD 61 turning the property over to the town, but unforeseen issues arose, forcing the school district to retain the former school building.

If the CRES project is approved, Barter could see more concrete talks occurring. School officials would welcome a “partnership” with Bridgton, possibly seeing the town redevelop the property and leasing space to house the district’s Adult Education program. Barter noted the due to the property’s proximity to Stevens Brook Elementary School, she and the school district would want to be sure that how the Memorial School property is used would be complementary.

 

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