ROCKLAND — Kicking the can down the road, and a kid throwing a wallet into the road with a string attached, acting as a lure that yanks away the wallet each time a grab is attempted. Rockland City Councilors used both analogies during the Monday, Jan. 5, agenda-setting meeting to describe a continued impasse regarding the former McLain School.
Following a meeting between RSU 13 administrators and two council members, a letter of directive is being devised by the City, mandating that the school board vote officially on when the transfer will take place, and for Superintendent John McDonald to provide, in writing, a plan and a timeline for his staff’s vacating the Lincoln Street property, if at all.
On Monday, Jan. 11, City Councilors will formally vote on an order to send the letter, despite McDonald’s similar request that the City provide a timeline to work toward, according to City Councilor Sarah Austin.
Austin and Councilor Nate Davis conducted a virtual discussion with McDonald and Loren Andrews in December. The discussion indicated a continued interest by the school district to transfer the building to the City.
“It sounds like that’s where everybody is hoping to go, at some point,” she said.
Austin acknowledged that COVID-19 and other circumstances have diminished the urgency for RSU 13 to vacate the premises. However, the transition is going to happen eventually, she said.
“I think no one wants to take the first step,” said Austin. “I would like to see us work with the school district to figure out what and when those steps are, so it’s not perpetually in limbo.”
Following RSU 13’s initial announcement of desire to transfer ownership to Rockland in 2017, an ad hoc group of Rockland residents was formed, tasked with deciding the best future use for the property. Meetings were held, surveys circulated, estimates and bids sought. Simultaneously, the school district planned to relocate to the former South Elementary School building on Broadway.
But then, with City requests for proposals advertised, RSU 13 put its Pre-K program in the former South building. The school district requested an update on Rockland’s plans for the McLain School since it was subsequently in need of office space. The request drew ire from a former council. Now, with social distancing conditions in place, classes at South School have expanded into the former school next door.
And though Mayor Ed Glaser supports the request for a concrete decision by RSU 13, he also expressed his concern of what the district’s vacancy will mean for taxpayers.
The McLain Building is paid for. There’s no rent or mortgage to pay. If RSU 13 leaves, where will the Superintendent's Office, Business and HR offices, Special Education, Adult Ed, and hardware and tech support staff go? And if they go, will residents be seeing a bond issue for a new RSU 13 administration building on the next ballot?
“It’s not like they’ve found a new home for their administration and their computers,” said Glaser. “They’re going to wind up using this as an excuse to have to spend more taxpayer money to build a new facility….It’s going to wind up costing the taxpayers more than what we get out of it.”
Still, Austin wants a concrete transfer plan from the district, for the ad hoc group to be re-activated — and, on a personal level — to see 28 Lincoln Street converted into affordable housing. During the agenda-setting meeting, she made clear that she had no interest in relocating City Hall to McLain.
Austin is not alone in her desire for a concrete timeline.
“We’ve been talking about this for three, four years now, and I think it’s now time to look forward and see what we can and can’t do,” said City Manager Tom Luttrell. “And let the school district tell us when they plan on returning this to the City of Rockland.”
Mayor Ed Glaser referenced the wallet and string analogy.
“I think that’s what the school district has done to us,” he said. “They threw this wallet into the road. They keep pulling it away from us ... teasing us.”
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org