OXFORD HILLS — On a snowy November school day in 1956, students at the West Paris High School were evacuated when a faulty sprinkler head released spraying water against the ceiling, causing it to sag, and leaving two inches of water on the gymnasium floor.
Sixty-one years later that same Viking sprinkler system is protecting the 16,525-square-foot, three-floor, wood-frame building, now known as Agnes L. Gray Elementary School, and the approximately 120 students and staff who occupy it.
The system, like others in the Agnes Gray and Oxford Hills Middle schools, is old and inefficient, but safe, school officials stress.
“The biggest issues are programming issues, inadequate space,” Superintendent Rick Colpitts said when asked recently about the state of the two school buildings.
Each school building has stymied the district’s ability to move forward in the educational direction officials aim to reach.
Simply put, the 122-year-old the Agnes Gray Elementary School and the 63-year-old Oxford Hills Middle School, are outdated.
To resolve the decades old issues, the SAD 17 directors authorized Colpitts at their March 20 board meeting to submit separate applications to the state’s Major Capital Improvement program for the renovation or replacement of the Agnes Gray Elementary School and the Oxford Hills Middle School.
Without the state funding, the district can not address the major problems through the necessary construction or reconstruction.
The district has applied three times for the Oxford Hills Middle School, but with only a few projects approved now each year, the school’s rating has only inched up the ladder. The new rating cycle will begin the process again and this time both schools could be rated anywhere.
The last list of School Facilities Priorities that was recommended by the Maine education commissioner to the state Board of Education was during the 2010-11 rating cycle. During that cycle, the Oxford Middle School was initially ranked 26 out of 71.
The new applications for the middle and elementary school are about 2 inches thick.
The detailed applications include the educational program information on the affected facility; facility information; comprehensive 10-year enrollment analysis, facility maintenance and capital improvement plans; educational program information; summary of the long-range facilities plan; an analysis of the existing space, and other information.
This is the third time the district has applied for state funds for the Oxford Hills Middle School. The district previously applied in the 2001-02, the 2o10-11 and now the 2017-18 rating cycle.
The school, located on Pine Street in Paris, was built in 1954 with an addition in 1975. It transformed from a junior high to a middle school in the early 1990s but never was able to incorporate the sixth-grade students into the middle school fold due to lack of classroom space.
School officials say a long-term goal has been to create a true middle school where sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students are educated in the same building. The building is now not only too small to house sixth-grade classes but inadequate for the current seventh- and eighth-grade classes.
That lack of classroom space subsequently necessitated the use of portable classrooms that in turn resulted in additional problems when in 2012 they had to be removed because of significant mold.
In that effort to address that problem, Colpitts wrote in the application, the district had to lease space – 2 miles away in Oxford – to create a second campus known as South Campus.
“Although educators were creative in developing programming to fit the new environment, it resulted in the lack of continuity of programming between the Main Campus and South Campus,” he said.
The move has also been costly. Although the state’s Leased Space program currently subsidizes approved temporary and interim leased space at a maximum rate of $8 per square foot, the district has never been approved for the funding despite annual applications.
The district continues to struggle with the problems at the Main Campus including:
- overcrowding prevents the middle school from incorporating the sixth-grade classes – a move that would also alleviate overcrowding at the elementary schools.
- no lab facilities for seventh-grade program because of a general deficiency of science room in the original building.
lack of general classroom space. Electrical wiring and technology has been insufficient throughout the general classrooms.
no usable stage, as it has been taken over by a fitness room.
the art room has been located under the gymnasium, which generates unacceptable high levels of noise and distraction.
kitchen is seriously undersized and has inadequate ventilation and lack of air conditioning.
one handicapped access door is available on the lower level through the cafeteria.
- serious lack of storage space.
- little roof insulation and no insulated glass.
- gasoline-powered maintenance equipment is stored under the gymnasium.
- little sound insulation in the 1970s classrooms due to demountable metal partitions.
The 122-year-old Agnes Gray School on Main Street in West Paris is a beloved community school that was constructed in 1895 with additions in 1910 and 1923 and a 1939 addition built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration program).
It is not only the oldest school in the district, but the poorest. A total of 73.8 percent of students receive free lunch, which is higher than the state average of 45.6 percent.
“Our West Paris students are disadvantaged not just due to poverty, but also due to their school facility,” Colpitts wrote in the application to the Maine Department of Education.
Like the middle school, the Agnes Gray programming is hindered because of the outdated building.
Colpitts wrote that as a result of the overcrowding issue, the district will reopen the nearby Legion School in West Paris to accommodate grade five students who are returning from the overcrowded Paris Elementary School during the upcoming school year. The following year, grade six students will return.
The reopening of the school alleviates crowding at the Paris Elementary School, stated Colpitts, but requires those students to be housed in a separate facility when they return to West Paris. It does not address the desire to create a true middle school by ending the sixth-grade students to the middle school in Paris.
The same serious problems that existed for decades include:
below ground cafeteria, art/music, guidance, teacher workroom and kitchen.
lack of classroom space.
inadequate egress from all three stories of the facility.
lack of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility throughout the entire facility.
lack of administrative, office and nursing space.
persistent issues of moisture penetration and mold.
stairs accessing basement and second floor space have uneven risers and rails that are lower than code permits.
the facility is constructed of wood and is protected by a sprinkler system that is now 78 years old.
This is not the first time the district has applied for the major construction program funds. It has only been successful on three occasions.
In 1995, the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School got funding approval for $27.2 of the total $28.9 project to construct the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School that would hold 1,240 students.
In 2001, SAD 17 received funding Hebron Station School of almost the entire $4.5 million for the 150 capacity building.
In 2005, the Paris Elementary School was approved for $11.2 of the total $11.9 project costs to build the 450 capacity school on Hathaway Road.
In this current round the Department of Education states applications and site reviews are being conducted through December of this year and the scores will be compiled early next year.
Applicants will be notified in March and April 2018 of where they stand on the proposed priority list.
The final priority list will be announced by the DOE commissioner during summer 2018.