After a long wait, Maine state officials have agreed to help fund the construction of two public elementary schools in Augusta and Pittsfield.
The Maine Board of Education on Dec. 13 approved replacing or renovating the Manson Park School in Pittsfield and the Lillian P. Hussey School in Augusta through the state's Major Capital School Construction program.
The highly competitive funding program helps districts across Maine address health and safety issues in old school buildings that require major investments to fix, and that towns and cities often cannot afford to finance on their own.
Projects are ranked every seven years in order of greatest need. The condition of each facility, their size and student population makeup, and the curriculum and services offered to students all factor into the rankings, according to the Kennebec Journal.
Then, starting at the top of the list, the state Board of Education funds as many projects as it can without exceeding Maine's yearly school construction debt limit; for the 2024 fiscal year that began last July, that limit is $150 million.
Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) 53, which includes the Manson Park School, now has until 2025 to pick a site and submit a concept plan to the state for its project, and the Augusta School Department has until 2026.
The schools were ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, in the last school construction rating cycle in 2017, and they are the last ones to be funded before a new cycle begins in 2024.
A total of 74 projects were submitted for consideration in 2017, and the first seven — including primary and middle schools in Fairfield, Skowhegan, Rumford, and South Paris — have already been approved.
"There is a lot of work to be done with the state — the state will be a partner," explained Augusta School Superintendent Jim Anastasio at his city's recent board of education meeting, held hours after the state board met. "[The new school] is based on the Hussey School, but that doesn't mean it will be the Hussey School."
He added that community members, city officials and school staff will be able to give their input throughout the process of designing a new elementary school.
The Lillian P. Hussey School was built in 1954 and serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade, while the Manson Park School was constructed even earlier — in 1945 — and serves pre-K and kindergarten students.
Many Steps Ahead Before Schools Can Be Built
Before any design process can begin, though, the Augusta- and Pittsfield-based districts must get the state school board's approval for the locations of their proposed schools.
Following that, they must present a concept plan that includes a projected budget to the state board and to the public.
If the board approves the concept, the district will need the backing of local voters in a referendum to proceed with drafting designs and securing final funding approval by the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education (DOE).
The two Central Maine school districts have waited over 12 years for their projects to be selected, having each applied to the 2010-11 and 2017-18 cycles.
MSAD 53 also applied for projects at two of its other schools, Vickery Elementary School and Warsaw Middle School, Superintendent Sharon Littlefield told the Journal. They placed Nos. 11 and 54 on the list, respectively, and will not be funded this cycle.
Fern Desjardins, chair of the State Board of Education, said that when the new cycle opens up again next year, she expects there will be more applicants than the current number on the list.
The state was not able to fund as many projects this cycle as it did in the 2010 cycle because construction costs have increased, noted Scott Brown, director of school facilities for the Maine DOE.
"There are [currently] 74 applicants on the list, and usually around nine to 12 are funded, so around 30 percent [of the schools] on the list have been addressed," he said. "That's pretty significant, but I would say that the cost of projects has recently — and will continue to — limit the amount of projects."
In the 13 years since Augusta submitted its first request to replace the Hussey school, discussion around what to do with the facility has varied.
In 2021, the city's Board of Education hosted a community forum about what the future of the building could look like, and this past June, Anastasio said that if the district did not get state funding to build a new school, it might have to move forward with a new plan because there is simply not enough space in its existing buildings for additional students.
According to the Kennebec news source, no clear timeline exists on when the school districts will set up meetings with their communities to shape a vision and determine their next steps, but Augusta officials are aware of the looming 2026 deadline to submit its concept plan.
"It sounds like a lot of time away, but it's not that far away," Anastasio said. "It will go quickly."
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