TREMONT — Despite strong recommendations not to move forward, selectmen gave the school a green light on Monday to explore the option of using Pacific Hall for students since space has gotten tighter during the pandemic.
“It’s no surprise the school has been tapped out on space since prior to COVID–19,” said Tremont Consolidated School Principal Jandrea True to the Board of Selectmen at their meeting Monday. “We are at max capacity more than we ever have been.”
Several steps need to happen before the building could be used, each requiring funding to do so. There is about $173,000 in coronavirus relief funds designated for the school, according to True, that are only available until the end of this year.
“Please know it is not all set aside for this,” she added, noting that the school has another $50,000 set aside. “I understand this may not be the path forward for us. It may not be the quick fix we need, but we can’t wait until it’s too late to figure that out.”
Fire Chief Keith Higgins and Planning Board Chairman Mark Good both voiced opposition to the use of the building known as Pacific Hall on Tremont Road that voters approved accepting at this year’s ballot town meeting in July.
“I’m very adamant against the use of this building,” said Higgins. “I just think it’s the wrong choice and we’re going down the wrong road. I could list a million things we’re going to come up against.”
In previous conversations, Good has mentioned limited parking and general outside space at the location. He cited land use and site plan review ordinance requirements for parking and how the more restrictive standard must be followed.
“It’s a nonconforming lot at .38 acres,” he said, pointing out a requirement in the town’s site plan review ordinance regarding clear routes of access around the building for emergency vehicles.
“I just think, if we can make an exception for the school for this,” said Selectman Mike Mansolilli. “There must be an exception with all this COVID going on. It’s better than having kids not attend class.”
With students working in pods around the school building, a few classes are at capacity to the point that if another student enrolled, the class would have to change to virtual instruction, True explained.
There are classrooms set up in the library, the cafeteria and what was once the teachers’ room. A storage building on the school property is full of nonessential classroom furniture in order to make room for proper social distancing for in-school instruction.
“We don’t even have space for kids to meet with interventionalists at this point,” said True. “The teachers don’t have anywhere to go to even plan their class. The teachers’ room is nonexistent.
“I think the option has come up now because the town has that building,” she added. “We have an immediate need right now.”
Good asked if the option for portable classrooms on the school’s property had been discussed, adding that the Department of Education has funds available for them because of COVID–19.
“Wouldn’t it be better to have kids on campus?” Good asked. “It’ll be safer.”
Members of the school committee have talked about portable classrooms, True said, but are not in favor of them.
“They’ve just been really adamant that they don’t want it to look like a pop–up trailer park,” she explained.
“We’re in a really unique situation here,” said Selectman Kevin Buck. “We need to do what we can with what’s available.”
School officials decided to postpone the start of a prekindergarten program at the school this year because of the pandemic. Students for that program were going to be bussed to Pemetic Elementary School because of a lack of space in Tremont, and attend a half-day program. Use of Pacific Hall has also come up as an option for that program when it is appropriate to get it started.
“What I’m hearing is you’ve got two problems,” said Buck. “One’s short term and one’s long term. I think in the short term it makes a lot of sense to explore this. In the long term, it might not make as much sense.”
Town Manager Chris Saunders laid out the steps necessary for the school to find out whether the building could suit its needs or not. Creating a site plan review to put before the town’s Planning Board was a first step.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” said Saunders. He explained that a site plan review application has to be found complete, and then a public hearing scheduled three weeks out due to proper notification of the public. “We’re looking at early to mid-December when that could occur.”
If possible, True said she would like to have the building to use at the beginning of 2021.
“If they do come up with a plan, we’re talking about December,” said Good. “How can the work be completed to have the kids be in there at the first of the year?”
Selectmen voted unanimously in favor of having the town manager submit a site plan review application for converting Pacific Hall for school use. They then voted unanimously in favor of the town signing a memorandum of understanding with the school to use Pacific Hall for school purposes. And the board passed a final vote unanimously to authorize the town manager to begin any work, properly permitted, at Pacific Hall to be used for school purposes.
“I think you ought to stop that motion right now,” said Higgins. “Any changes to that building have to be preapproved by the state fire marshal.”
“I really think we should let them get started on this,” said Mansolilli, who recommended having the town’s engineer do a feasibility study. “Even if it gets a security system and a sprinkler system, it’s not a loss, we own it.”