SACO — The focus of a location for a new Saco school has shifted to a city-owned tract on U.S. Route 1 referred to as the Clair property and to the Saco Middle School property after the school board learned land owned by Sweetser is not currently available.
In an Aug. 10 letter to the school board, Sweetser President and CEO Jayne Van Bramer said the Board of Directors had officially weighed in and voted unanimously to pause any potential land sale, for any potential buyer.
Of close to 30 potential parcels examined by Saco school officials, three emerged, with the Sweetser property at Saco Industrial Park topping the list, followed by the Clair and Saco Middle School properties.
Among other reasons, Van Bramer said Sweetser intends to undertake long-term land use and future development planning, an exercise she said that would take six months to a year. She asked the site be removed from future consideration by school officials.
“Even though our discussions up until this point have been informal, Sweetser is reaching out now prior to any public straw vote or any official vote to proceed with land sale negotiations,” she wrote.
Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray told the Saco School Board on Aug. 10 that the decision means the Site Selection Committee would meet to discuss the so-called Clair property and SMS property. He asked the public to reach out if they knew of any other potential sites that could be available.
“This is an unfortunate situation,” said Ray. “This was the leader in the clubhouse for us after a lot of different meetings and a lot of different work.”
He said traffic movement counts, preliminary work on a traffic study, wetland surveys and a Phase 1 environmental assessment would have to be completed on whichever land parcel emerges as the new leader. Ray noted that the money for the work will likely have to come from school coffers.
The time involved to complete the work would make it extremely difficult for a public vote on a location in June, as originally contemplated, Ray said.
The school department learned a couple of years ago that it came up on the Department of Education’s School Construction fund list — which means the fund would pay for most of the cost of a new school.
State DOE guidelines require that schools funded under the construction program have at least 20 acres, plus one additional acre for every 100 students, which requires the school department to find a parcel with a minimum of about 34 acres.
In her letter to the school board, Van Bramer noted that the demand for mental and behavioral health services is increasing, adding there is a strong potential for Sweetser using the land it owns for future growth opportunities.
There are specific reasons why Sweetser has decided it cannot proceed further, she said, citing the timeline and development plans. She noted the size, scope, and location of the public school project “continues to be fluid and has expanded beyond what was initially understood.”
She noted liability concerns around the potential housing of clients near where the new school would be located.
“As you may know, we have supervised programs for both children and adults that might have been placed with us through the judicial system or who have had drug/alcohol/sexual offender issues,” Von Bramer wrote. “While presently there are no such liability concerns, the potential for inclusion in our future growth on this site has our board and executive team concerned both for our organization and for the safety of your students.”
Van Bramer noted Sweetser has a longstanding relationship with the Saco School system, providing behavioral and mental health services with school-based clinicians throughout the school district and at its private school on Ricker Farm. She said Sweetser’s commitment to Saco is longstanding and ongoing.
She said the explanations had been forwarded to Ray, whom she described as “an incredible partner and leader in this process.”
School Board member Beth Johnston said the decision is discouraging.
“(It is) really disheartening and discouraging to discover that a site we thought was very high on our likelihood, and our list and desirably, and with the expectation it was going to be available to us, has suddenly been taken off the list or removed,” Johnston said, in part, at the Aug. 10 school board meeting.
Ray told the school board that the site selection process — much of which is required to be conducted in public — is difficult for all.
“We need to find the site and move forward, because I suspect the state will only be so patient with us,” said Ray. “… we will overcome and find what’s right. We’ll just have to go through a bit more work.”