Planning Board voices objections to middle school plans

By Stephanie Grinnell | Jun 11, 2014

Camden — Planning Board Chairman Lowrie Sargent announced intentions to work more closely with the school board and select board after citing concerns about the proposed middle school renovation and demolition plan.

At the opening of the June 5 Planning Board meeting, Sargent noted a portion of the charter requires the Planning Board to author 5-year plans "to provide long-range continuity to the town for programs requiring more than a year to complete and for capital appropriations of significant magnitude."

His concerns, he said, about proposed plans to renovate a portion of Camden-Rockport Middle School, build a new section and demolish others, are based on the actual need and how the new building will help students receive a better education.

"I do not remember how fancy the buildings were," he said, adding it was the teachers who provided his education who made an impression.

Sargent also cited the most recent census, which places middle school population currently at 277 students and predicts a drop of more than 100 students in four years. He suggested residents and town officials need to more closely look at why a new building is needed to hold a declining population. At an estimated cost of more than $23 million, Sargent said the tax increase could hurt the community and prevent attraction of new residents.

"It's important that Camden be tax competitive with other communities," he said.

During the meeting, Sargent suggested repurposing the middle school rather than tearing it down. He said incubator space for entrepreneurs or housing could potentially work in the portions of the school no longer needed after new construction is complete.

Sargent stressed the importance of the school, planning and select boards working together going forward.

"I look forward to a time — hopefully soon — when we can discuss these options," he said.

Speaking June 6, Sargent said he was speaking on behalf of himself as well as other Planning Board members.

"We would like to be involved in the planning of the schools so we can be helpful," he said. "We're constantly talking about how great the schools here are. ... We'd like to begin conversations with the school board, planning board and select board. We all want to have wonderful schools that provide good education. ... How can we work together to make the end result better for everybody?"

Sargent noted if construction moves forward, the project will be the largest development in town "in a long time." While the school board understands the educational needs of students, Sargent said opening the conversation with town officials can only help. Informal conversations about collaboration are "just starting," he said.

Superintendent Elaine Nutter said June 10 town officials have been involved in the year-long development of plans for the new middle school. She noted Town Manager Patricia Finnigan is a member of the building committee and some members of the select board have attended public forums about the school. Nutter said school officials also have been working with those developing the river walk, which is planned to traverse school property, to try to coordinate construction times to minimize the impact on students.

"There's been some communication already," she said.

Nutter said new construction is the most cost-effective option because it will address all of the issues, both interior and exterior, of the existing school. The school board on June 18 will be presented with fleshed out details regarding the proposed new construction by Oak Point Associates, the architecture firm, as well as plans on how to move forward toward a voter referendum to authorize funding.

"I think [middle school renovations are] still in the planning stage in terms of how to proceed and when to proceed," Nutter said, adding financially, it is important to consider the context of the economy as a whole.

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