About 20 residents, including a state rep and three Camden selectmen, met with developer Michael Mullins Feb. 16 at the Rockport Opera House with many expressing support for saving the Mary E. Taylor school from demolition.

Josh Gerritsen proposed a petition seeking a ballot item in June that would force the school board to turn the building over to the town of Camden for $1.

"Many members of the community voted in favor of the new middle school project on the pretense that that vote did not require the demolition of the Mary E. Taylor school," the petition states. "Concerned citizens would like the ownership of the building to revert back to the Town of Camden so that a viable redevelopment plan can be explored at a minimal to no financial impact to taxpayers."

Many in attendance at the meeting expressed strong support for Mullins' proposal to create a "Maker Space," in the former middle school building, which would include metal and woodworking shops, 3D printing, and other creative functions. Mullins, who has extensive experience in development and historic preservation of buildings, said that contrary to the school district leaders' claims, the building is in good structural condition for its age of about 90 years.

Residents voted in June 2017 to build a new middle school on Knowlton Street in Camden. Prior to that vote, Superintendent Maria Libby stated in a column that voting for it would not necessarily mean the Mary E. Taylor school would be demolished, but after the vote was approved, she and the school board have pushed for demolition despite interest by some residents in saving the school.

The school board unanimously rejected Mullins' proposal Jan. 10.

Mullins said he organized the forum to provide some closure on the Maker Space proposal for the supporters of that initiative, and to discuss alternative locations now that the school board has moved on.

Mullins was introduced by State Rep. Owen Casas, and the meeting was attended by Camden Select Board members Alison McKellar, Robert Falciani and Jenna Lookner as well as Planning Board Member Richard Bernhard.

Mullins studied real estate at MIT and has an MBA from the University of Chicago. His development projects include major historic preservation work in Lowell, Mass., new urbanism projects south of Boston and affordable housing projects. He is known locally for building a home, amphitheater and swimming area out of the old quarry on Cedar Street in Rockland. He is also involved in teaching business and helping with startups.

After the school board rejected his project proposal, it decided to form a new committee to come up with a concept for future use of the MET building, with an eye to putting that proposal on the November ballot. The possibility of moving school administrative offices and alternative education to MET has been discussed.

There has also been discussion about allowing Mullins' proposal on a more limited basis in the basement of the building. Mullins wrote a letter to the superintendent asking if that would be compatible with offices and alternative education, given the noise workshops create.

Mullins also stated in the letter he had been told his plan would require additional architectural costs that the school district did not have money for, but now he sees the district has found about $40,000 for architectural study for its new plan.

He said several of the concerns raised about his plan, including his proposed changes to the parking plan, he was able to easily address in about an hour with his architect.

The major concern expressed at the meeting was what will happen if the taxpayers vote down the proposal that the school board puts on the November ballot. Without additional funding or money from a private developer the school may not be ADA accessible, which would prevent it from being used by the public.

Gerritsen said the petition was an effort to avoid that problem by turning it over to the town due to a vote in June.

Mullins said it will cost less to keep the building than to demolish it.

He was critical of the current plans for the new middle school campus, comparing it to a big box, a large building behind a large parking lot. He argued if Target wanted to build a superstore there in Camden, he did not think that would have received much support.

Several people who attended the meeting spoke in support of saving the MET building and argued it was a beautiful building that was not in bad condition. Mullins said it was one of the best historic preservation candidates he has ever seen.

Some also questioned the way the school board and superintendent had handled the issue. Jasmine Pike of Rockport, a parent with a child who attends the middle school, took issue with the school district posting signs at the school urging a yes vote on the new middle school plan at taxpayer expense.

"I don't trust the school board," she said. "They're in over their heads. …I am not done fighting."

Another resident at the meeting said the school board made them feel like their opinion did not matter.

At the end of the meeting Mullins announced he was forming a not-for-profit political advocacy organization called Citizens for Maine dedicated to preserving the Maine way of life. He will be organizing other Civic Forums along the coast

Conflicting school leader statements

The community has been wrestling with this issue for years.

In 2015, voters rejected a plan for a new school campus that would have included a renovated MET building used for central offices and alternative education.

They came back in 2017 with a vote on funding for a new middle school.

In a guest column we published June 8, 2017, right before the residents voted on the bond for the new middle school project, SAD 28 Superintendent Maria Libby wrote:

“Many have asked if approval of this bond necessarily results in the demolition of the Mary E. Taylor wing in the existing facility. It does not. The ballot question includes additional language which places specific limits on how the school board may use the bonded money. Specifically, it is limited to actions which may be necessary to construct a new middle school and then demolish the existing facility once the new one is constructed. This language does not require demolition of the entire middle school facility, it only permits the money to be used for demolition. Determining what to do with the Mary E. Taylor wing is a separate issue.”

On June 13, residents voted to support construction of the new middle school.

At the June 15 school board meeting, school board Chairman Matt Dailey and Libby argued that if the MET building is not demolished as planned, and remains on the school campus, another public vote would be required.

"We did have a legal opinion today which said that based on the wording of the bond, if we didn't want to knock down the MET building, we would have to go out to referendum again. If it is to be preserved, we have to go out to vote regardless," said Dailey.

Libby said at the time that she and members of the school board approached the Camden Select Board with the news MET may be demolished as part of the middle school bond question. Little interest was expressed by the selectmen.

"We wanted people to know that there was something that might happen that would put that building at stake." said Libby on June 15.

“It was not common knowledge that MET would be demolished,” McKellar said in a comment on VillageSoup in July 2017.

Dailey responded to her, arguing several VillageSoup articles had mentioned that the Mary E. Taylor building would not be part of the new middle school project, though he also said he thought the media should be more exact in its reporting on the issue.

“I do think there's a big difference between saying that MET will not be part of the new Middle School project and saying that it will be demolished even if there's a private party interested in taking ownership and repurposing it,” McKellar responded. “I keep going back to the comments from Maria a week before the vote…”

These comments were posted under Libby’s column, in which the superintendent stated:

“One of the things we learned was that given the language of the referendum question (which was penned by legal counsel in early May) we would legally need to go back to referendum to do anything but demolish the building. When the referendum question was drafted, we weren’t thinking about whether the language bound us to demolition because we were unaware that the MET building would become a 'rallying cry' at the last minute. The proposal we put forth to referendum included demolishing the entire facility. It was after the question went to print but before the vote that the board agreed to reconsider MET. We certainly were not trying to mislead anyone. We could not foresee the course of events that would follow.”

Just this week, Libby, Dailey and Vice Chairman Lynda Chilton sent a new column to The Camden Herald with a timeline of events which states:

"June 2017: There was a referendum vote to build a new middle school and demolish the existing facility. The proposal was approved 1947 yes to 897 no."

See links below for related stories and columns that include many of the references cited in this story.

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