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Wallagrass residents, selectmen discuss fate of former school building

WALLAGRASS, Maine — Residents were vocal and split Wednesday night on what to do with the newly vacant former Wallagrass Elementary School building. Nearly 50 people attended a public meeting in the school’s gymnasium to give selectmen their thoughts on the issue.

In deciding to close the school, Maine School Administrative District 27, has offered to transfer ownership of the building to the town, at no cost.

St. Francis and Allagash, which also have seen the closing of their schools, have since converted the buildings they acquired for use as municipal offices, community centers and public spaces.

“We need this building in our community,” resident Elaine Desjardins told board members.

Although there would be no cost to receive title to the building, Wallagrass taxpayers would have to pay for the maintenance of the structure were the town to become the new owner. The exact amount of that cost was in dispute Wednesday as residents, both in favor of and opposed to taking ownership, discussed options.

Desjardins, a longtime opponent to closing the school and now a supporter of using the building for other purposes, disputed figures provided by the SAD 27 central office regarding those maintenance costs.

Town Manager Jim Gagnon estimated that the additional costs of taking on the management and maintenance of the building, based on the figures provided by SAD 27 and not including asbestos abatement, could increase the local tax rate by just under 2 mils, from the community’s current $14.30 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Citing figures she said were provided by St. Francis officials, Desjardins estimated the annual cost of heat, utilities and upkeep of the old Wallagrass school would be between $20,000 and $25,000, not factoring in any revenue generated by rental fees or money saved by moving the town office from its currently rented space to the former school.

That amount is less than half of what Gagnon provided, based on the SAD 27 figures.

Speaking by telephone Thursday, SAD 27 superintendent Ben Sirois said the figures provided by his office are based on when the building was being utilized as a school. Closing off parts of the building, as St. Francis has done, could lower the overall costs of maintaining the building, he said.

Some audience members commented that their children still use the school grounds and playground equipment. For the past few years, organizers also have made use of the school’s gymnasium for youth sports programs.

Things such as community centers, parks and public spaces are what bring new taxpayers to town, more than one audience member said during the meeting.

“We need a place for our kids,” Desjardins said. “Where else do we have? Where would we have our harvest suppers? Where would we vote?”

While many in the audience shared Desjardins’ concerns, others questioned if the building would actually generate revenue or see frequent use as a rental space for weddings, and similar events.

Another unknown cost involves asbestos, which was used in the original construction of the building. Although there is no danger presently, any renovations made to the building, which are likely if it were converted to office space or other uses, would require abatement of any disturbed asbestos.

Gagnon told audience members Wednesday that SAD 27 would not abate any asbestos prior to transferring ownership. The cost of such work, if any were needed, would be borne by the town of Wallagrass.

One option suggested by a few residents was to transfer ownership to the town and try it for a year to see if is worthwhile economically to continue to keep it and whether or not it gets used enough. If things did not work out and the town had ownership of the building, officials could then place it on the market and try to sell it.

According to Gagnon, the taxable value of the building is $1.3 million.

The school district, as required by Maine’s school closure law, would place the building up for sale if Wallagrass residents decline to take ownership. If the building is not sold for fair market value or through a sealed bid process, the district could then demolish the building, according to Sirois.

Wallagrass voters will decide whether or not to take ownership of the former school buildings. Officials had previously announced Aug. 17 as the date for that vote, but Gagnon, said on Aug. 8 that a need to modify the ballot language has forced officials to push back the voting to a later date, which will be announced when set.

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