ROCKLAND — A request made by RSU 13 for a status update of McLain School RFQs has led to an angry backlash by some members of Rockland City Council.
Two years ago, the Rockland City Council agreed to take back the unwanted school building from the school district. For more than a year, a task force made of Rockland residents has met bi-monthly at the school, on Lincoln Street, in an attempt to determine the best use of the property.
During those two years, RSU 13 has continued to use the school for its administrative offices, with the intention of eventually relocating to the former South School building on Broadway.
The task force has met with eight developers, visited several former school-to-affordable housing complexes, worked with Maine State Housing, and considered several renovation ideas.
According to Councilor Valli Geiger, prior to the task force distributing RFQs in April, RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald and Chairman Loren Andrews continued to reassure her that RSU 13 did not want the building for its new Educare program.
Monday, August 5, during the monthly City Council agenda-setting meeting, RSU 13’s financial advisor, Peter Orne, approached Council for an update. This request follows on the heels of a newspaper article stating that the district has changed its mind about vacating.
“I have been part of that group that is looking at an infant to 5 program,” said Geiger. “I personally thought that McLain was a perfect place to have it. It’s a huge sunny space with wide hallways like the incredible program in Waterville that you are hoping to model off. And I was assured, vehemently, that no, absolutely not. It would cost at least $4 million for us to turn that building into something usable for students....So, I have to tell you, to read it in the paper rather than having heard it first from Superintendent McDonald, I have to tell you, I’m really upset about it.”
Geiger cited the hours and hours of time donated by residents to the volunteer task force.
“At this moment, to come to Rockland – and actually only come because it’s in the paper – It seems like such a breach of trust to me,” she said. “I’m really disappointed that we haven’t been talking all along. I’m disappointed that you, who’ve watched us come every other week for well over a year, have never stepped it in and said ‘whoa.’ You’ve let us get really really far down the road.”
The RFQs produced four responses and another 2 -3 developers who are very interested in that property and turning it into housing, Geiger said.
According to Orne, the district isn’t interested in using the McLain School for the Educare program. It would, instead, use the former South School for the program, and continue to use McLain for administration.
“I don’t want to give the impression that we are trying to reneg on this,” said Orne. “We’ve been going back and forth for years now – for 20 months. We just want to make sure that we are working with you the best way we can to make that building a success....We’re not asking for you to change your mind.”
Orne said knowing the outcome of the RFQs would help the district in its planning of how to transition.
“We don’t have a lot going on [at the McLain School] that can’t be done anywhere else,” he said. “There’s commercial space in Rockland or Thomaston; we’ve got five towns that we cover.”
Councilor Ed Glaser said that if one of the RFQ responses is a good possibility, then Rockland should jump on it.
“The negative part, from the school district point of view,” said Glaser, “if you need more office space, this may be the cheapest office space you can get. If you start renting commercial space or have to build another building on the campus of the South School or the high school, it’s going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Orne then interjected to say that they weren’t looking to build, which prompted Glaser’s ire.
“I would not, with your track record at the moment, say ‘we’re not looking to do something,’” said Glaser. “I gotta tell you, Valli’s right. Planning is something that seems to be missing from the school district. I said it at the budget meeting, and I’ll say it now. I think the citizens are tired of hearing this from the school district. Blaming the state. Blaming everybody else for planning. Two years ago you knew you needed this building. And now all of a sudden, ‘well, maybe we need it more than we thought we did.’
“I would just calm that down a little bit when you say something like ‘we’re not looking to build a new building.’ I’ll guarantee you, within five years you’ll be building more stuff.”
RSU 13’s contracted lease at McLain was set to expire in September. Council agreed to extend that lease, which Orne said was the best option for the building.
“The worst thing you want to do with a building like this is have it empty,” he said. “Low heat, things will start crumbling. Having people inside of it, maintaining it is good for the building...We’ll time our move with the City needs.”
Mayor Lisa Westkaemper agreed that the City and RSU 13 should meet regularly to keep each other in the loop.
“We need to look at, again, what might be the highest and best use, and I don’t think we know what it is at this moment,” said Westkaemper. “It may be that we’re not ready to receive it [the building] next month. Receiving it in September 2019 makes no sense to us at this point.”
The City will continue to analyze RFQ and RFP returns, see who’s serious, see what the money is that is involved, as well as consider the City’s hopes, dreams, and plans.
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org