Big decisions loom on SAD 61 schools

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

CASCO — By November, SAD 61 hopes to layout a building construction plan to voters to address overcrowding at Songo Locks School.

At the moment, directors are taking a close look at reopening Crooked River for elementary instruction. The project would include significant interior renovation of the 30-year-old facility, as well as an addition to the backside of the structure, which would house library, art and music space on the first floor and five fourth grade classrooms on the second floor.

The estimated cost of the project would be $6.8 million (although the number will likely be higher, $8 million to address other needs).

Directors Monday night met with architects at CRES to talk more about possibilities there.

While the school district will also look at addressing parking and traffic flow problems at Songo Locks as part of the building plan, another big question directors will tackle will be whether to close Sebago Elementary or keep the school open.

Back in 2000, PDT Architects recommended the closure of Sebago Elementary as part of a facilities plan. Again, PDT added closure as an option, saying “As a school serving less than 100 students, it becomes much more inefficient and more expensive to operate and maintain.”

K-5 enrollment at Sebago Elementary has decreased from 164 in 1996 to 135 students in 1999 to today’s population of 76. A decline is expected into the future, as well, according to Planning Decisions, which prepared an enrollment study in January 2014.

If SAD 61 were to decide to close Sebago Elementary, a third of the student population would be bused to Stevens Brook in Bridgton, while the remaining two-thirds would attend Songo Locks and Crooked River.

The report adds, “PDT understands the importance of elementary schools to the social culture of small villages and towns.”

The question becomes “at what cost?”

At a recent workshop meeting, Finance Coordinator Sherrie Small presented a spreadsheet outlining operating costs of three options:

Scenario 1: Sebago Elementary as a K-5 school (enrollment 76) and Songo Locks (enrollment 467) as a K-5 school.

Total current costs (2015-2016): $4,290,632.16

Songo Locks: $3,365,866.91

Sebago Elementary: $924,765.25

Per pupil costs — Sebago $12,167.96; Songo Locks $7,207.42; Stevens Brook (327 students) $6,878.40

• Costs included in figuring per pupil amounts: instruction, administration, guidance, library, technology, maintenance, field trips

Scenario 2: Songo Locks as a K-2 school, Crooked River as a grade 3-5 school; Sebago Elementary closed.

Total projected cost: $3,994,788.01 — decrease of $295,844.15 over scenario 1.

Songo Locks: $2,267,102.03

Crooked River: $1,662,685.98

$65,000 added for transportation

Per pupil cost — Songo Locks (292 enrollment) $7,764.05; Crooked River (251 enrollment) $6,624.25

Scenario 3: Songo Locks as a K-2 school; Crooked River as a grade 3-5 school; Sebago Elementary remains open.

Total projected cost: $4,515,628.02 — increase of $224,995.87 over scenario 1

Songo Locks: $2,065,524.61

Crooked River: $1,505,338.16

$20,000 added for transportation

Per pupil cost — Songo Locks (252 enrollment) $8,196.53; Crooked River (215) $7,001.57

SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith said if Sebago Elementary was closed, personnel could fill in openings — due to retirements and resignations — across the district.

What’s in the cards for SES?

Even if SAD 61 decided to close Sebago Elementary, Sebago taxpayers could keep the school open by assuming the building’s maintenance and operational costs.

Because the talk of closing SES had been mentioned over the years including 2009 when SAD 61’s Facilities Committee looked at consolidation, Sebago selectmen contracted with Planning Decisions of Hallowell (assisted by Wright Pierce Engineers of Topsham) in 2012 to develop a report entitled, “The Future of Sebago Elementary School.” The study was paid through a grant from the Cumberland County Community Development Block Grant program.

The original structure was built in 1880, and was designed as an inn. Later, it was converted to a house. An addition was built in 1913, while other additions were constructed in 1951 and 1985.

According to the 38-page report, the building, along with a large parcel of land around it, appears to have been donated to the Town of Sebago in 1951 by Dorothy Spaulding. The deed of that transfer includes the language “…in the event of sale of any part or all of the above described premises, the proceeds of such sale hall be used by said Town as a fund for a Consolidated Grammar School in said Town, but no purchaser from said Grantee shall be obliged to see to the application of the purchase price.”

Later, the portion of that property that includes the school was granted to School Administrative District in 1971. There appear to be no conditions put on the school district in the transfer.

Few question that Sebago Elementary is the “heart” of the town. The report states, “Sebago Elementary School is a key institution along the Main Street…where parents meet their neighbors and form lifelong friendships…where children get to know each other and form deep friendships, relationships that bring them back to Sebago after their school years are over.”

The school also encourages volunteer civic involvement and is a “visible anchor” to the town.

What economic benefits do a school bring to a town? Planning Decisions studied five small rural Maine towns that had elementary schools closed, and compared them with nearby towns that continued to operate schools.

The findings: towns without schools saw population decline or stagnant growth; retail sales dipped; and real estate values fell.

“A number of people at the Sebago public meeting said that they would not have moved to Sebago, if there hadn’t been a local public school with a good reputation. These comments are consistent with what is heard from real estate agents, and what is found in the vast literature on the effects of public school accessibility and quality on the value of homes,” the report said. “During the decade of the 2000s, Sebago’s home values were consistently higher than neighboring Baldwin and Bridgton, and equal to those of Casco and Naples. If the local elementary school was to close, and the alternative involved a long trip, then there could be a measurable reduction in property values in Sebago.”

If taxpayers decided against paying extra in local taxes to keep the school open, SAD 61 could turn the property back over to the Town of Sebago. It could be used as commercial or office space, an assisted living facility, antiques mall, conference center or community center the report recommended. Another option, the report offered, is to move the town hall to the old school and renovate the current town hall into a community center.

Educational benefits

As the school board weighs various options, they will place equal value on educational advantages to be gained by pursuing a particular project, as well as “respecting” the burden local taxpayers will assume by solely financing the building project — there will be no state aid.

At a recent workshop at Crooked River School, Superintendent Smith offered “educational talking points” regarding how a newly-aligned elementary school setting — kindergarten to grade 2 at Songo Locks (with the potential of a pre-kindergarten program being added in the future), and grades 3 to 5 at Crooked River — would be advantageous to both students and staff.

Those “talking points” included:

Advantages for students

  • Grade level team approach to planning and teaching
  • Larger peer pool to interact with and develop social skills
  • With multiple classes for each grade level, opportunities to separate students with different needs or better fit
  • Support services access on a full-time basis (Title I, RTI Coordinator, Academic Leader, Guidance, etc.)
  • Flexibility in scheduling/class structures
  • Full-time nurse and nurse facility upgrades; full-time librarian
  • More space (less overcrowding); improved facilities

Advantages for staff

  • Grade level partners to collaborate with for academic planning
  • Weekly grade level planning time built into schedule
  • Full-time principal; full-time Academic Leader
  • Greater teacher evaluation mentoring support.

More updates ahead

As the school board pieces its plan together, directors and Superintendent Smith want to keep information in front of taxpayers. So, there will be hearings in the future, as well as posts on the SAD 61 website (www.lakeregionschools.org)

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