SULLIVAN — In a unanimous straw poll vote Tuesday night, 23 community members from Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) approved the current site of Sumner Memorial High School as the site of a new high school that the state is funding for the district.
The vote followed a lengthy presentation by Lyndon Keck, a principal at PDT Architects, the Portland-based firm that is developing the project for RSU 24. Keck laid out the different possibilities for the new school facility, which will host middle-schoolers as well as high-school students.
At the beginning of the talk, Keck asked the group how many of them had gone to Sumner. About half raised their hands.
From there, he went on to explain that a positive vote would allow his team to move forward with the project at that site. In the fall, there will be more discussions about the floorplan of the new school. In January, community members will be voting again on “concept design.”
One of the main issues, Keck said, was the fact that the school board overseeing Sumner about 30 years ago had taken federal grant money to build a playing field. That grant money came with strings attached: that the community have access to the field in perpetuity.
“That’s a major encumbrance,” Keck said. “It has not been resolved, but our goal is to get it moved or lifted.”
Keck also explained the development of the project, describing site visits with staff from the state Department of Environmental Protection, as well as local naturalists and the Army Corps of Engineers. He said no significant vernal pools were found.
He also told the group that Sumner couldn’t just be renovated because it’s an old building that’s constructed in a way that wouldn’t meet modern codes. The structure was built in 1962 and has a wood frame. Modern school building codes require a steel frame.
One audience member asked Keck whether the design was flexible for potential growth in population. Sumner serves about 250 students. With middle-schoolers, that number will increase to about 460. Keck said they were designing for 500.
But state education officials required a demographic survey, Keck told the audience member, which had shown that RSU 24’s population will likely decrease and then level off over time.
Multiple audience members questioned Keck about the possibility of a track, explaining that the students currently practice running inside Sumner’s hallways after school. Keck said there wasn’t really enough space on the Sumner site to make that happen, though one design had included a smaller than normal track on the northeast side of the property.
“I wish you had another 10 acres here,” Keck said, “then we could conceive of it.”
He said an indoor track could be featured in the gymnasium, which is an uncommon but useful feature in schools.
Rob Eaton, the town manager for Sullivan, suggested to Keck that the School Board could look into off-site locations for a track. Eaton pointed to Ellsworth High School as a school that used a track at a different location from the high school itself.
Sullivan Fire Chief Ben Gilley expressed concern that the lack of a wrap-around road would be a safety hazard in the event of a fire. Keck said his team was planning to work with the Fire Department to make sure it was comfortable with the ultimate design, but the steel frame and sprinkler system would help combat any fire hazards in the building.
Ellsworth Police Chief Glenn Moshier, who said he attended Sumner, questioned whether the plan for the new high school included an analysis for security, which he said was a different matter than general safety.
Yes, Keck said, an analysis will be done.
As for parking, some residents wondered about whether there would be enough room for everyone. Keck explained that there would be about 85 student spaces, and then extra for teachers and visitors. There will likely be 200 spaces at the most in the new facility.
Lastly, he explained that a performing arts space was widely desired by school staff and students, but the state was unlikely to show support for that.
“The state of Maine has a formula that is not generous with performance space,” he said.
Ultimately those in attendance voted in favor of the project being located at the Sumner site. Keck encouraged residents to sign up for the subcommittee groups if they had an area of interest so that they could help inform the process.
If the process goes as planned, the new RSU 24 high school could be open at the Sumner site by September 2022, Keck said in his presentation.