Letter to the editor: Alison McKellar

MET and the Zenith Program: Two special community assets

Posted:  Thursday, November 1, 2018 - 4:45pm
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It's official. The building is not just old, it's historic.

While I was in the midst of writing this, we received some exciting information from the state agency tasked with nominating buildings to the National Register of Historic Places. The staff review of the Mary E. Taylor building is complete and it has been added to the Maine Inventory of Historic Resources with an opinion that the building is likely to qualify for the National Register once the adjoining buildings on Knowlton Street have been removed (a process that has already begun). This important recognition is something our whole community should be proud of and it creates many opportunities for reducing the cost of the project.

 

The need for more space is not going away.

I will get quickly to the most important point I wish to make. Voting yes on the renovation of MET is the best way to preserve our historic downtown while addressing a longstanding need at the high school’s alternative education program for at-risk students (aka Zenith). The alternative? Knock down this iconic brick building and come back to voters in 3-5 years asking for funds to build a new structure, most likely on Route 90 on an undeveloped 14 acre parcel located behind the high school. In the meantime, Zenith will continue to have a wait list and struggle with the inadequacies of a space that was designed more as a garage than a school.

 

Alternative education and at-risk students deserve our commitment and support.

The Zenith Program, as many will attest, has been a lifeline for students, supporting them not just academically but with life skills and emotional coping mechanisms as well. It was founded in 1996, just before I started high school, and I saw first hand the transformative impact it had for many of my friends who were right on the edge of dropping out, or worse. It continues today with an outstanding reputation in our community. Ask anyone.

It incorporates hands on learning and real life lessons, from doing taxes, to applying for jobs, to knowing what happens in the town office. One student writes:

“In a way, Zenith offered me a new beginning, a chance to start over, be myself, and do well in school. Before Zenith, when I was at the high school, I was all over the place. I rarely went to school and when I did I didn’t usually finish a whole day- because I couldn’t stand that place, or so I thought... Not only did Zenith offer me a chance to earn all the credits that I needed in order to graduate, it offered me a chance to really open my eyes, and grow up.”

 

13 years of searching for a dignified space.

This well run and much needed program is crammed into a corner of the bus barn (along with the superintendent’s office) and it is at capacity. This means there is constantly a waiting list, and at-risk students who could benefit sometimes have to be turned away. The CSD school board has been looking for a way to solve this problem since at least 2005, exhaustively studying options ranging from leasing to buying to building.

The Board concluded that the best options were either to renovate MET or to build a new, smaller building outside town on part of a 14 acre wooded parcel owned by the five town CSD.  I think the first one is better for everyone, and after much deliberation, I am proud to support it.

One major benefit of the MET plan is the fact that it would also create about 6-8,000 square feet of flexible space on the ground floor that could be leased as an income generator. This is the reason that a small zoning change also appears on the town ballot, and there are many uses of that space that could complement school uses.

 

Sometimes the greenest building is the one that’s already built.

We frequently forget to account for the carbon footprint of new construction and the environmental impact of landfilling our old buildings rather than repurposing them. Especially for those concerned with climate change, it is important to note that it can take between 10 and 80 years for a new, energy-efficient building to overcome, through more efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts that were created during the construction process. That is a long time to wait. For more on that, read this study.

Environmentally, we should also remember that it is often zoning and not the type of insulation in the walls that most impacts a town’s carbon footprint. Tearing down a historic brick building within our walkable downtown, and serviced by public water and sewer, only to turn around a few years later to bulldoze a new site a few miles out of town, is short sighted in my opinion, and will cost us more in the long run.

This is the very definition of suburban sprawl and it hurts local businesses while increasing emissions and destroying habitat.

 

It’s now or never for MET

So why can’t we reconsider the fate of MET in 5 years? Years ago, when MET was connected to the other buildings on Knowlton Street, the heating systems also became intertwined and the boilers are all in the part that is being torn down. There is no easy way for MET to remain standing and functional after the demolition of the rest of the facility without doing some work on it. It’s now or never.

While serving on the MET Repurposing Committee, I advocated for a significantly scaled back renovation plan that would have phased in major upgrades and chipped away at the maintenance issues. However, the majority of the committee felt that taxpayers deserved to be presented with the entire scope all at once in order to make an informed decision and set the building up for the next 100 years. I respect this approach also.  

It was a pleasure to work alongside administrators and community members on the MET Repurposing Committee. Our work was somewhat rushed because of the need to settle the issue for planning purposes. We all could have used more time to fine tune recommendations before the question had to be ready for the ballot. As a result, we chose to err on the side of caution in terms of estimating what may or may not need to be done. For example, the $4.9 million dollar figure includes a complete rewiring of the building, all new plumbing and sewer line, new electrical service, repointing of bricks, fully insulating the walls, a new elevator, air conditioning, mechanical ventilation, a new heating system, a complete foundation excavation and waterproofing, and much more (including 10% design and build contingencies, an 8% adjustment for possible inflation, etc). These cost estimates were done after the recent major increase in the cost of materials.

 

Lessons from history. We’ve been here before and it turned out well.

It may be interesting for some to know the history behind the building. 100 years ago the town of Camden was nearing the end of a decade long effort on the part of the School District to get the community to fund a modernized grade school education program and the buildings that were necessary to make it happen. A beautiful new high school had been built in 1904 and was the source of much pride around town, but elementary and middle school educators still relied on a scattering of inadequate, dangerous, overcrowded and poorly lit buildings.

In 1918, in his final year as Superintendent, Bertram Packard was growing frustrated and had this to say in the Annual Town report:

“I do not need to dwell upon the absolute unfitness of the Elm Street Building for school purposes; I have repeatedly emphasized that fact and from frequent statements made to me by citizens of the town I am convinced that the consensus of opinion is in favor of its being condemned.”

It was not until 7 years and 3 superintendents later that teachers and administrators would finally have funding approved for a new grade school building (MET) and a totally renovated Elm Street School.

It was contentious and enormously frustrating for educators of the time, as I’m sure many today can relate to, but we are grateful to the school officials who persevered and to the townspeople who eventually invested in the next generation.

In 1925, the Camden Herald called the renovated Elm Street Building “a revelation”  and said “the Building Committee has worked out a very satisfactory building out of that which to many looked hopeless.”  A few months later, when MET was completed, it was described by the same newspaper as “a model in every respect- the latest thing in school buildings of its class.”

As a community, we are indeed grateful that the townspeople and the school district had the vision to invest both in new and old buildings almost 100 years ago, as they set a vision for education in the community. They bickered and called each other names and argued about what is right and then they were proud. Both their vision and the buildings have served us well.

I hope that history will repeat itself and that we will pair the construction of our new middle school with the renovation of our old one, just as they did with the Elm Street School and the new “brick building” in 1925. At the same time, we will send a strong message that the community cares as much about our at-risk students as we do for those who are already excelling.

For even more history on MET, you can visit this link which is a compilation of bits and pieces of interesting history I have found along the way. Scroll all the way to the end for excerpts from superintendents reports as they grew increasingly annoyed in the lead up to the eventual vote on MET:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1HRZgoPp5weFDikIxjHigQiXuY2KvK_eK

 

For an overview of the work proposed to MET:

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/68bcbf_61dc0b1281774701bd80108e914657bc.pdf

For more about Zenith, check out this blog which contains many stories from students. https://zenithalternativeeducation.wordpress.com

Alison McKellar lives in Camden and is a Camden Select Board member.