Sebago citizens tired of school ‘closure’ threat hanging over their heads

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

SEBAGO — Like many families in this tight-knit community, Beth McCarthy and Denise Olsen are tired of having the threat of SAD 61 closing Sebago Elementary hanging over their heads.

McCarthy, Olsen and others filled the school gym last Wednesday to hear SAD 61 officials unveil their proposed $9.6 million renovation and new construction plan for Crooked River School. While architect Stephen Blatt presented slides on a big screen showing the project’s floor plan, which calls for construction of a new wing to the rear of the present structure to add five new classrooms, as well as a new 150-seat auditorium, several people were eager to address something much dearer to their hearts — the future of their “little” school.

While several parents and community members spoke, the theme was nearly the same.

How can SAD 61 expect Sebago residents to vote in favor of the Crooked River project on Dec. 8 if it means that the upgraded facility on Route 11 would provide enough space that closure of Sebago Elementary could finally become a reality?

The Project

Blatt opened his presentation by reviewing how SAD 61 has arrived to this point of repurposing Crooked River as a Grades 3-5 elementary school. With Songo Locks School continuing to experience overcrowding, the district looked at six options to ease that problem. Options included redistricting, at which parents firmly voiced displeasure.

District officials felt Crooked River was the best solution, but it will carry a $9.6 million price tag — although Superintendent of Schools Al Smith and Blatt feel the final cost could be lower.

When completed, the school could house 300 to 350 students. It would include a variety of improvements, including a separate drop-off loop in front of the building for school buses, the addition of a pellet boiler and storage silo, and the installation of an underground storage tank to provide water for an upgrade sprinkler system. The project calls for the square footage to increase from 35,000 to 50,000.

The existing well is “good,” and while tests are being conducted, the septic system is “usable” and “in good shape,” Blatt reported. Another improvement will be resurfacing of playing fields behind the school. The sandy surface will be “scraped away” and an organic mixture that will hold rainfall, and thus sustain grass growth, will be added.

Blatt said the redesign is to meet SAD 61’s needs for the next 40 to 50 years. The present building is 30 years old and, in many cases, fails to meet current state standards. Blatt said along with added instructional space and improvements including lighting and more windows, Crooked River would become a “top notch” facility.

Turning the building back into an elementary school means several existing programs will be moved elsewhere. The high school alternative education program would be moved to the “White House” — a modular structure located on the Lake Region H.S. campus. Adult Ed could either be headed to a Bridgton location or occupy two sites, one possibly the White House during evening hours. Special Ed offices would likely be moved to Sebago Elementary for a year.

Superintendent Smith pointed out that while $9.6 million is a fair amount of money, he noted that the Stevens Brook Elementary renovation that took place 17 years ago cost the district $7.3 million.

Then, Smith opened the door to the reason many Sebago parents attended the informational forum. The superintendent noted that improving Crooked River would lead to the demise of Sebago Elementary.

“A number of people feel this is a means to an end. It is not,” Smith said. “Closure of Sebago Elementary has not been discussed at the board level.”

Smith admitted, however, that he has been charged to develop a cost analysis for every school in the district with the ultimate goal of, “How can we do things better,” he said.

Talk of closure dates back to 2000 when Blatt’s firm, PDT Associates, filed its first building report and recommended that Sebago Elementary be closed. A second report seven years later again suggested the same action.

While past and present school boards never put the item firmly on the table for discussion and action, comments by directors have been floated that as enrollment declines and operating costs climb, SES closure would be one option to save SAD 61 money. This past June during a SAD 61 workshop meeting, Finance Coordinator Sherrie Small outlined costs associated with bringing Crooked River back on line, as well as if the district either kept Sebago Elementary open or closed.

McCarthy and others attempted to broker a deal with SAD 61 officials — keep Sebago Elementary open for the duration of the Crooked River bond (likely 20 years), and in turn, they would support the project.

“Unless I get some guarantees, I can’t vote for this,” McCarthy said.

Smith responded, “No one has a crystal ball and can’t tell” what the district might face two, five or 10 years from now. Smith added, “We do value a small school,” but could not guarantee what the future holds for SES. He also pointed out that closure has not been a topic of conversation by the school board, if SAD 61 decided to go in that direction, “There are a number of pieces and a lot of discussion that goes along with it. It (closure) would not happen overnight. You would know what is going on. It’s a long process.”

School Board Chairman Janice Barter, who along with Phil Shane of Casco are the long-standing members, said “I can’t tell you what will happen in the future, but we value how you value your school. We see more Sebago people at meetings than all other towns. It’s always that way.”

Barter reiterated the dire need to address overcrowding at Songo Locks, which she described as “bursting at the seams.” She also noted that in her 17 years on the school board, there has been no official move to close Sebago Elementary, thus keeping with the district’s philosophy of educating elementary-aged students in their hometown.

Denise Olsen says closure rumors hurt the town on many fronts — emotionally as well as financially. Because of a lack of security, young families are hesitant to either move to Sebago or plant roots there.

“Why would a young family want to build and live here if they have no school to come to?” Olsen asked. “We are not imagining this.”

Olsen agreed that closing Crooked River as an elementary school was a mistake. Closing Sebago Elementary, at any point, would also be a big mistake, Olsen said.

“It would be a shame to see this go. This school turns out great kids,” she said. And, another speaker pointed out that SES students consistently score higher than other schools on standardized tests, and had three students (of 11 seniors graduating last year) in the LRHS Top 10

Art teacher Cindy Taylor said, “Things happen here on a daily basis that are unparalleled. You see kids in kindergarten and fourth grade that are good friends,” she said. “It’s a special place.”

One resident questioned the superintendent that if Sebago decided to withdraw from SAD 61 would the Crooked River project move forward. The answer: yes. Smith said withdrawal from a SAD takes about two years, and if the Crooked River project is approved by voters, Sebago would be responsible for a share of that debt, as well as other debt currently on the SAD 61 books.

As the meeting came to a close, Olsen reiterated many parents simply want some peace of mind knowing that their school doors would remain open.

“I am not at ease completely (about our school’s future) after tonight’s meeting, but I feel a little better about some aspects,” Olsen said. “We just want to know what is going on.”


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