2016-05-20 / Front Page

Verdict is in: Sea Road School stays

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — An update to RSU 21’s master facilities plan, released during a school board workshop Monday, May 16, is good news for fans of Sea Road Elementary School (SRS). Long targeted for closure, the award-winning school is now off the chopping block until 2025, or later.

One of the criticisms of the $56.5 million school renovation bond approved by voters in June 2015 – the largest locally-funded school construction project in Maine history – was that it poured money into Kennebunkport Consolidated School (KCS) and Arundel’s Mildred L. Day Elementary School (MLD), even though Sea Road Elementary was newer, and in better condition.

However, the agreement that created RSU 21 in 2009 calls on it to maintain an elementary school in each member town. Given declining enrollment district-wide, that seemed to put Sea Road on the surplus scrap heap, as the town has two elementary schools and the K-3 Kennebunk Elementary School (KES) that is newer than Sea Road, which serves Grades 4 and 5.

And yet, Sea Road was recently nominated by the Maine Department of Education for the prestigious National Blue Ribbon School Award. According to Principal Stephen Marquis, Sea Road was one of just four schools in Maine, out of 597 eligible for the honor, as it met all 12 nominating criteria, which had some doubting the wisdom of closing it. But now, those Sea Road boosters can rest easy.

According to the new report, RSU 21 needs 87 full-sized classrooms at the elementary level, based on class sizes set by school board policy. That policy recommends a range of between 16 and 20 students per classroom in Grades K-1, 18 to 22 in Grades 3-4, and 18 to 24 in Grades 5-6.

At those ranges, the schools need between 48 and 61 classrooms. Between them, KES, KCS and MLD have 70 full-sized spaces – seemingly, more than enough. However, the new plan goes beyond the mere square footage calculation given by Auburn-based Harriman and Associates in a 2010 facilities use plan – a massive document that tallied 123 pages, before appendices.

According to Superintendent Katie Hawes, Harriman had figured out an “architectural capacity,” for the district’s elementary schools. However, the 10-page report put out on Monday relies on a “functional capacity,” that takes into account “characteristics of the instructional program and student grouping techniques,” as well as “types of space and scheduling modes,” in addition to the school board’s class size policy range.

That means a need for 87 classrooms when accounting for special education, small therapy spaces, “response to intervention” rooms, sites for gifted and talented pro- grams, Spanish classrooms, and rooms for art, music and band. That bumps the need to 87 rooms versus 70 available at KES (39), and the post-renovation KCS (15) and MLD (16).

Even if the school board agreed to find five rooms by moving the central office administration out of KES and renting elsewhere – at a projected cost of more than $73,500 per year – and if it engaged in “perfect distribution” – enrolling students to the nearest school regardless of town lines – there’s not sufficient space to simply close SRS and house its students at KES.

“We remain 13 classrooms and nine smaller spaces too small,” Hawes said.

“We want people to understand, we did turn over all the rocks,” school board chairman Maureen King said, explaining the nine-month search for space.

Using a 10-year enrollment projection prepared by Planning Decisions Inc. in 2011, RSU 21 will continue to need between 74 and 86 classrooms though 2025, with a midline recommendation of 79 classrooms per board class size policy.

Currently, RSU 21 has 1,124 students in Grades K-5. According to the Planning Decisions projection, that number is expected to drop to 959 by the 2024-2025 school year, with numbers falling most precipitously at KCS, from 171 this year, to a low of 119 expected.

For that reason, Hawes said she may encourage more families in Arundel and Kennebunk to choose KCS, as 33 students already do.

“If there are students who live close to the ’Port, we may give their families a call and offer to let them begin and complete their elementary education in Kennebunkport, in order to even out class sizes,” she said.

Currently, some grade levels at KCS have fewer students per class than board policy calls on – including 13 per class in kindergarten and 14 in second grade versus minimum recommendations of 18 and 18 per class, respectively.

“However, the numbers are not so small that we can simply eliminate a class and consolidate them, not without going way above the board policy,” Hawes said.

“If you have these nice, new schools, why would you overload them as soon as you got them?” King asked, rhetorically.

As a result of the report, Hawes said the Sea Road will remain open indefinitely. However, actual enrollment figures will be compared each year to the Planning Decisions projections, and a new calculation of classroom needs made each year. If the number ever gets close to 70, an ad hoc committee will be formed to look into closing Sea Road, Hawes said.

However, she noted the savings in closing Sea Road is not as great as previously imagined in the Harriman report.

“They assumed if we closed that school we’d save on all of the staff there, but obviously, you still need teachers to teach the kids [wherever they go],” Hawes said.

Instead, Hawes said the actual savings from closing Sea Road, in terms of supplies, utilities, maintenance and custodial services, might total less than $144,000 per year.

Because the property is not zoned for commercial use, Hawes said market research found that Sea Road might bring less than $350,000 per year in rent, or $2 million if sold outright. However, if a zoning change was approved by Kennebunk voters, Sea Road might fetch as much as $5.2 million, Hawes said, although she tempered that prediction by noting that similarly sized spaces currently sit empty “across York and Cumberland counties.”

Finally, while there were few questions from board members on the report – a lack of inquiry that prompted a spontaneous, “Oh, I can’t believe this,” from King – one director did address how the lack of space might affect other future growth plans.

Catherine Rush, of Arundel, asked about the possibility of launching a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds. Currently, RSU 21 is one of only three school districts in York County to not offer pre-K classes.

“At this point we would need to do a preschool study and look at available spaces, Hawes said, noting that if Sea Road remains open, it or KES might house such classes. Alternately, pre-K could be held at Kennebunk High School, with students there invited to participate as part of a work/study offering.

KHS is predicted to shed 28 students, from 682 to 654, by 2025.

With or without pre-K, some have predicted RSU 21 will need all the space it can get in the future, even with Sea Road remaining on line.

After all, Arundel resident Jack Reetz said, the Planning Decisions projections have been off by as much as 10 percent each year.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see us bursting at the seams 10 years from now,” he said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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