School move debate continues

BAR HARBOR — If the town chose to site a new elementary school at the Park Street property currently used for Little League fields, the 10-acre site where the current Conners Emerson School sits could be developed as affordable housing, according to the Town Councilor who pitched the idea.

“By possibly freeing up this other parcel of town land, it might help us go in the direction of dealing with our housing problem,” Councilor Joe Minutolo said at the Oct. 15 council meeting, noting that most houses available for sale in town are unaffordable to most of those who work here.

“Maybe that land could be developed for year-round housing that fits our economic incomes. It also would build the tax base.”

The town will likely need to spend between $12 million and $45 in the next few years to renovate or replace its aging elementary and middle school buildings. Minutolo brought the idea of moving the school downtown to the School Improvement Committee, the group studying options for renovation or replacement of the school, last month.

But school officials have been at work on plans for a major building renovation or replacement for five years, Principal Barb Neilly told the council. In May of 2018, Neilly and school board Chair Kristi Losquadro met with then-Town Planner Janna Richards to discuss whether any town-owned properties other than the current school site were possibilities for a new school building.

Of the athletic fields, Neilly said, “we were told that it was a no-go.”

There are two separate property parcels at the Park Street location; both are owned by the town. The one on the east side, adjacent to Main Street, has restrictions on the deed that require it to be used for open space and recreation. The property on the west side, which abuts private residences, does not have those restrictions, according to recent research by Minutolo.

Minutolo said he shared those findings with Carla Haskell, the architect who has been working with the School Improvement Committee.

He said he and Haskell “had come to an agreement that if it was looking like we were looking toward a new structure, that we would introduce this at that time.”

Responding to criticism that the idea interfered with the School Improvement Committee’s work, he added, “It wasn’t hidden, and it wasn’t an eleventh hour thing. I did try to present it as (soon) as I was in the process here, but this is how it played out.”

The Friday before the council meeting, former Town Manager Dana Reed wrote to current Town Manager Cornell Knight to say the Little League fields had been developed using a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant. So, even if the property on the west side does not have deed restrictions, “the grant agreement prohibits the conversion of the property to another use without the approval of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior,” Reed wrote.

Last week, the discussion moved to the School Improvement Committee, which began work on comparing options for renovations or new buildings with a list that now includes the downtown site.

“The question is going to come up at every meeting,” school board chair Kristi Losquadro said of the new proposal. “We need to vet it.”

The School Improvement Committee has held eight other meetings since it was formed in June, including tours of some nearby, recently built schools such as Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School, according to Haskell’s project schedule distributed at the meeting.

The athletic fields idea first came to the School Improvement Committee Sept. 18 and Haskell and school officials met with Knight and Town Planner Michele Gagnon two days later.

Part of Minutolo’s idea was that if the town could sell the current school location property, it could help offset the cost of building the new school, Haskell said.

The sale would also have to be approved by the voters, committee member Peter St. Germain said. “It would take deep pockets to turn this site into developable property.”

Gagnon has said that in order for any housing development there to be deemed affordable, the town would likely have to sell the property below market rate, according to Haskell.

“I don’t know that I have a lot of confidence that [affordable housing] will happen,” Losquadro said. “Once you give that space away, you’ll never get it back.”

The Town Council approved spending an estimated $14,000 to have Haskell study whether it’s feasible to “take all the resources that are on the west side and squeeze them onto the east side,” to make room for a school on the west side, Haskell said. The school board is also set to vote at its Nov. 4 meeting on whether to give that study the go-ahead.

Neilly and Assistant Principal Heather Webster said the downtown location could limit outdoor space available to students, because the fields on the east side would still be open to the public.

A fence would be needed to separate the school from the public fields. So the site, Webster said, “contains us and doesn’t give the kids a place to run.”

The school district has commissioned a study of demographic trends and how they may impact future enrollment. At Conners Emerson, Neilly said, this year’s kindergarten classes are the biggest in the school.

The idea of moving the school “was just put out to see what the appetite is,” Minutolo said at the council meeting. “There’s enough people, I think, that think that this is not a bad idea that that’s why we kept going.”

Neilly and Councilor Matt Hochman both said they believe everyone involved in the process is motivated by a desire to do what’s best for the town and for the students.

“There aren’t many towns that support the schools as you folks have,” Neilly said. “And I want to see that continue. I want to see the working relationship continue.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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