March 7, 2013

Westbrook weighs plan for cocktail party fundraiser in middle school

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WESTBROOK — A proposal to sell cocktails and other drinks at a fundraiser at Westbrook Middle School has school officials looking into whether alcohol can be served in school buildings.

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The Westbrook Performing Arts Center was approved by voters in 2008 as a taxpayer-funded add-on to the state-funded middle school project. Although it has been lauded as a first-rate facility, it hasn’t generated nearly as much revenue as initially projected.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Although Westbrook School Department policy prohibits alcohol on school property, there are no apparent state laws against it.

Whether school officials want to change the policy is another question.

"The issue of liability with respect to this proposal raises concern for risk to the school department," Superintendent Marc Gousse wrote in an email Thursday to the advisory committee for the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, which is the school's auditorium, and other school officials.

The committee received a proposal last month from James Tranchemontagne, owner of The Frog and Turtle restaurant in Westbrook, to hold an event at the auditorium to raise money for marketing the venue and booking larger acts.

The $4.1 million auditorium was approved by voters in 2008 as a taxpayer-funded add-on to the state-funded middle school project.

Although it has been lauded as a first-rate facility, it hasn't generated nearly as much revenue as initially projected.

Tranchemontagne's proposal is to show "The Last Waltz," a documentary about The Band's final concert, in the 1,000-seat auditorium and hold a cocktail party with crudites, canapes, beer and wine in the lobby -- which also is the hallway of the middle school. Tickets would cost $25 per person for the food and the show.

Tranchemontagne would cater the event for free if he can recoup the cost with a cash bar. It would only be open to people of legal drinking age, and catering staff would check IDs, the proposal says.

Tranchemontagne said his interest in holding the event is to raise cash -- his goal is $20,000 -- to help the performing arts center start booking acts to generate more money and, ultimately, help lower taxes.

"I think it would be wonderful. I am 100 percent behind it," said Suzanne Joyce, a school committee member and chair of the advisory committee for the auditorium. "What it gets down to, though, is can we do it?"

The state Department of Education is silent on the issue, said spokesman David Connerty-Marin, who deferred to state alcohol laws. "There's nothing about alcohol sales in our statutes," he said.

Lt. Scott Ireland, commanding officer for liquor licensing and compliance in the Maine Department of Public Safety, said serving alcohol in schools isn't prohibited outright, but whether it can happen in Westbrook will depend on the proposal, which the department would have to review.

"We don't know what they're planning on doing, so I can't say if they're good to go," Ireland said. "There's no cookie-cutter answer."

Gousse is still looking into the proposal and plans to report back to the advisory committee with his findings at a meeting on April 11.

He said he can make a recommendation about whether to change the policy to allow alcohol, but ultimately the school committee would have to make that decision.

Joyce said, at the advisory committee's last meeting, members started to discuss parameters for selling alcohol at the auditorium, including making sure there aren't any other events happening in the middle school at the same time.

However, she said, the committee decided it was premature to have those discussions before finding out if it was legal.

Joyce said the purpose isn't just to hold the proposed fundraiser, but to be able to sell alcohol at other events in the auditorium, too.

"There were a couple of events that came over from Merrill (Auditorium in Portland) that may have been nice if they served beer and wine," she said.

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at
lbridgers@pressherald.com

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