Rockland Council votes for McLain building timeline: opponents, proponents ask ‘where would we go?’

Tue, 01/12/2021 - 6:00pm

ROCKLAND – A school board member and an artist-in-residency program are both asking Rockland City Council: ‘Where would we go?’

As Council voted 4 –1 (Mayor Ed Glaser dissenting) Monday, Jan. 11, to authorize the city manager to correspond with RSU 13 to develop a plan and timeline for the transfer of ownership of the McLain School Building to the city, school administration and taxpayer concerns continue to compete with those of potential residents, all as it relates to the building’s best use.

The city has identified higher use of the McLain building to be housing, according to City Manager Tom Luttrell, during the Jan. 11 meeting.

Recently elected City Council member Sarah Austin is seeking confirmation and an exit plan from RSU 13 as to when the school district will vacate the former school at 28 Lincoln Street. 

In 2017, as part of a school consolidation plan, RSU 13 announced intentions to return McLain School to the city after the school district no longer had a use for the building and staff had relocated to the former South School. With expectation of immediate vacancy, and a couple renewed promises over the years that the district would be vacating, Rockland enacted a subcommittee, which ultimately determined affordable housing as the best future use.

Almost four years later, school administrators continue to occupy the space, leaving many entities and potential renters disappointed by the delay.

Affordable housing directly affects the Apprentice Shop’s ability to operate as a nonprofit, according to Nina Noah, of Apprenticeshop, during the public comment section of the meeting. The cost of living and the availability of housing often present an issue for the artists. 

“We actually, recently, had a two-year apprentice who left the program because he was having difficulty with his housing,” she said.

Residency positions can be anywhere from 12 weeks to 2 years for the Apprenticeshop. Many of Noah’s apprentices settle into the community long term and buy property, according to Noah. But they struggle to find the housing, especially in summer months, and to find rent that’s affordable. And the majority are here on savings or scholarship. Because they are required to be at the shop Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., they aren’t able to work full time.

Noah said that when she was an apprentice of the two-year program, she moved every six months. At times, she lived in a camper and a boat.

“Apprentices are here and attending school, providing much needed labor for local business, whether it’s in the restaurant industry, deck hands on boats, or tutoring,” she said. “Many eventually settle in the area, buy property, and pay taxes in Rockland or in the surrounding towns.”

They also enable the Apprenticeshop to function, and to provide community youth and adult programming, according to Noah. For that reason, Noah is hoping that Rockland will show support for the nonprofit by showing support for affordable housing in the city. 

Yet, a McLain building change of use cannot happen until after RSU 13 no longer has a use for 28 Lincoln Street, which won’t be this year, according to School Board member Doug Curtis.

In 2017, the school district intended to relocate administration departments to the former South School. However, old South School is now filled with Pre-K classrooms, the after-school program, and alternative education students, plus a new board room, according to Curtis.  

“RSU 13 has no place to go,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t look at alternatives, but we certainly are not going to do it in the midst of a pandemic.”

Curtis made clear that he was speaking for himself, personally, as a member of the former Education Advisory Committee, as a school board member, and as a taxpayer. He continued by saying that the other members of the board feel the same way as him.

“Regardless of what a previous school board did, or a previous council did, I am personally not going to vote to move anybody out of McLain School for any reason whatsoever during the midst of the pandemic. If you want a date, I’ll suggest to the school board ‘10 years from now.’ That should give people plenty of time to decide what they want to do.”

Sponsor of the order, City Councilor Sarah Austin, said her intent was to keep the process moving forward, and to get confirmation of a timeline, “whatever that timeline might be,” she said.

Austin wants clarification of the school district’s motivation, and also to reconvene the subcommittee that had worked to determine the City’s best option for the building.

“If it’s one year, if it’s five year’s, or 10 years,” she said, “but, to not have something hanging in limbo and potentially putting the work of that committee, and the community, into a death by process situation….I’d like us to be part of a plan, not just a part of watching it whither by attrition.”