Councilor Valli Geiger cites work done by volunteer committee

School district rethinks giving up McLain School

By Stephen Betts | Aug 02, 2019
Photo by: Stephen Betts McLain School in Rockland

Rockland — The Rockland-area school district is having second thoughts about turning the McLain School building over to the city of Rockland.

But one city councilor is not happy with that possibility.

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent John McDonald said Thursday evening, Aug. 1, there have been additional space demands on the South School building and if he had known this earlier, he would not have recommended the district turn the McLain building over to the city

The RSU 13 Board voted unanimously in January 2017 to offer the building to Rockland. The Rockland City Council voted in May 2017 to accept the three-story brick building once the district no longer had a use for the property.

The school district still owns the building and there has been no transfer of the property.

State law requires school districts to offer school buildings to the municipalities in which they are located when the buildings are vacated.

McDonald said at the Aug. 1 school board meeting that when the decision was made to offer the building to the city, the school system was in a downsizing mode. Since then, he said, the state is considering turning the Child Development Services program over to schools. The district has also taken over the after-school programs from Youthlinks, and there are more special education needs, the superintendent said.

The city took over the after-school programs from Youthlinks after its parent agency, Broadreach Family and Community Services, closed and filed for bankruptcy in June.

Child Development Services offers screening, intervention services and early education services.

RSU 13 Board member Doug Curtis Jr. said he had heard that one use of the McLain School could be for self-contained classrooms for special education students.

Board member Carol Bachofner said the idea of putting special education students into self-contained classrooms at McLain was "really awful." She called it a form of segregation.

Business Manager Peter Orne said Friday there are no plans to use the McLain building for special education students.

Orne said the current cost of operating the building is about $85,000 a year, largely for oil. The school district's administrative offices are in the McLain building, as are district computer servers.

Curtis said $85,000 was a small amount in a district this size to alleviate crowded conditions at South School.

Bachofner said, however, that she wants to save the $85,000 and wants to get rid of a big, old leaky building.

McDonald said the school district can make do without the building.

RSU 13 Board member Gerald Weinand said if the school district is interested in keeping the building, the city should be notified.

Rockland City Councilor Valli Geiger said Saturday, Aug. 3 she expects the school district to keep its word to the city. She said as recently as an April 2 conversation, the district's superintendent and board chair made no mention they wanted to keep the building.

"If they want to do something other than keep their word to the city, I expect them to come to council and request they be released from their agreement. To explain to us, why after the city created a task force to look at re-use of this building, a task force that met twice a month for over a year, at the McLain School, they are speaking to the press rather than the city. It seems very disrespectful of the process the city has followed, not to mention a group of volunteer citizens who spent that kind of time serving the city," Geiger said.

The city councilor said the committee sent out a request to potential developers and there were four responses -- three for housing, and one from a non- profit gallery/foundation, with shared living space for artists.

Orne attended the Monday evening Aug. 5 meeting of the City Council and said the district was not trying to renege on its offer to give the building to the city.

Councilor Ed Glaser said at the Aug, 5 meeting that planning seems to be missing from the school district. He said that use of the building for school administration offices, as it is now, may end up being the least expensive option for taxpayers rather than a new building being built.

Geiger agreed saying that the city needs to decide whether the best use is for the school district, as a city hall, or for housing developments.

The three-story brick building was built in 1896 and served for nearly a century as a neighborhood elementary school. For about 20 years, the building has been used for administrative offices and for alternative education programs.

The city created a volunteer committee in April 2018 to consider possible re-uses of the building for housing.

The volunteer McLain housing committee received proposals in May from Penquis CAP which calls for affordable rental housing units for people 55 years old and older; Avesta Housing of Portland for affordable housing for the same age group; and Wishrock, a national company, which calls for 23 affordable housing units in the building. The Ellis Beauregard Ellis Foundaton has also expressed interest in the building for housing and studios for artists.

At a May 2019 meeting of the city committee studying uses for the McLain School, committee member Kathy Lane said there were exciting opportunities for the future use of the building, but that there were also significant challenges.

The existing building could be converted into 22 to 25 units of housing, Lane said, or more if an addition were made to the building.

The large foyer on each of the three main floors makes it more challenging to do a conversion while maintaining the historic character of the interior, she said.

The school building is not suitable for high-end residential condominium units, Lane maintained, because there are no water views from there.

The building, however, is eligible for state and federal tax credits of up to 45 percent combined, according to committee member and former longtime Rockland Community Development Director Rodney Lynch at the May meeting. The building is in a historic residential district and is close to the downtown, he said.

Councilor Geiger said at the May meeting that the cost to convert the property into housing -- perhaps senior housing -- is estimated at $10 million to $12 million. She said  costs for building materials are very high now, as is labor, because of a shortage of workers.

Comments (12)
Posted by: Pete Orne | Aug 05, 2019 08:59

I'd just like to remind readers that I have dedicated every Tuesday from 10AM to Noon to be an 'Open House'.  I will do my best to listen, answer questions, and provide documents as requested.  If there are questions where it might be appropriate for other departments heads, or the Superintendent, to attend, that can also be arranged.


Pete Orne

Business Manager, RSU #13

28 Lincoln St.

(207) 596-2001


Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Aug 04, 2019 07:40

Doug please help me I'm confused again.  By consolidating area towns into one district and moving students from two or more building into one we have created an overcrowding situation in that one school, surprise, surprise.  Now we have closed the Thomaston school and are giving that to the town just like the McClain school proposal.  So now that we have created this dilemma the school board proposes to correct it by opening another building.  Doesn't this just bring us back to the beginning ?  When I was a child, just after the civil war each town had their own schools.  Rockland students attended North school (if you lived in the North end) or South school (well you know).  There were also various neighborhood elementary schools throughout the City.  This system worked fine for years until the Government decided they had a better plan.  Well it's plain to see how that is going.

Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Aug 03, 2019 18:20

It is instructive to use some of the figures cited in the article, even if they are not quite accurate, to provide some perspective on how a developer would look at repurposing the building for housing.


Take the low end construction cost of $10M and divide it by an ambitious fit out of 25 units.


That would equate to spending $400,000 per unit. $400,000 dollars. True, there could be some reduction using Historic Preservation and other tax credits, but how much they will offset overall budget remains to be seen. Would these new units be market rate or subsidized or a mix?


I hope that someone with development experience, such as Kevin Bunker, can be persuaded to attend Monday’s meeting to provide a realistic view from that side.

Posted by: Doug Curtis Jr. | Aug 03, 2019 18:15

I really wished the city council had met Just Once  with the City's Education Committee before they disbanded it. They did good work too.  The $85,,000 estimate to keep the school open is for everything not just oil heating on an annual basis.  I am not going to be bound with what a previous board did

Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Aug 03, 2019 18:06



The $85,000 a year is the total operational budget, as provided to the Board by Peter Orne. The building burns about 10,000 gallons a year in fuel oil, sometimes more. The remainder is custodial staff, other utilities, plowing, etc.


There is also the issue of the cost of the new boiler, which I’m sure will be explained Monday evening.

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Aug 03, 2019 16:57

Refreshing to see comments that are sharing possible solutions to the situation. Yes, I said refreshing. YEA!!

Posted by: Amy Files | Aug 03, 2019 16:17

While I can understand why the City would be frustrated to hear that the school system may change their mind -- my first concern would be to the schools and our children. We have a struggling school system and an elementary school (that wasn't designed to house elementary children if I understand correctly) busting at the seams -- if the RSU 13 decides they need to keep this building -- let's work with them.

Perhaps there is a solution where the school can share cost and space with the artist residency program? -- and ideally some partnership where the arts community connects with our school kids in the same space.

As far as heating cost goes -- when you're spending $80,000 or more a year on oil -- for a building of that size -- it would seem to make sense to invest in heat pumps. Putting a pump in each room (or even putting a smaller amount in strategically harder-to-heat rooms at the end of the system) would, I am guessing, pay for themselves within only a year or two.

Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Aug 03, 2019 10:01

If there plans to be a dicission of McClain school Monday night I would like to hear from the "task force" and learn just what they have accomplished after meeting twice a month for a year.  If we in fact have developers interested in this building where are they and is anyone prepared to make an offer ?  Or will the City take over the building and end up paying the nearly $100,000 expense of building upkeep while their committee meets for the next five years.  As Clara Pella once said :  "Where's the Beef"

Posted by: Doug Curtis Jr. | Aug 02, 2019 23:19

I personally have not seen any plans for what we now call the old South School for classrooms and administration. I do not know whether we need the McLain school or not. What I do know is that the current South School is jammed up to the rafters and some classes are taught in the atrium in a school that was designed for middle school students. Special education classrooms that were built and paid for in the old South School have been transferred and rebuilt in the middle school all at local taxpayer expense. I see no need to rush leaving McLain school but obviously it would be nice to see the plan and ask questions. One of the problems in Westbrook was they went on a consolidation spree and then they ran out of space when the town grew. We need to complete the high school construction and middle school projects first and then see where we are. From my perspective this makes good sense.

Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Aug 02, 2019 14:40

There are many examples in Maine, nationally and in Europe of successful re-development of old/older buildings into desirable housing that do not always have water views. There are also opinions offered in this article without sources and or data to back the claims. The city of Rockland already capitulated with other towns on the new voc. tech school,which sits on highly valued waterfront property that will provide no taxable revenue for the city of Rockland. The city of Rockland could have negotiated for the school to be located elsewhere and sold the waterfront property to a well-vetted developer for taxable housing. The Siemens heating costs seem to be way above what other companies could provide. Did the town of Rockland have other bidders? How long is the contract with Siemens? Are tax payers getting their moneys worth?

Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Aug 02, 2019 13:38

Much of the former Knox Mill on Washington Street in Camden was repurposed into high-end condos. No water view there. There's even a high-end restaurant in it.


That said, I personally think the RSU should keep the McLain School.

Posted by: Francis Mazzeo, Jr. | Aug 02, 2019 11:13

As Ronald Reagan would say "there you go again". Something tells me this is not going to be in favor of the taxpayers.

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