SACO — A potential lease agreement the Saco Schools Department is seeking for a new building for its Pre-K program may have hit a snag.

Last week, the school board authorized Superintendent of Schools Dominic DePatsy to sign a lease with Toddle Inn to use its building at 5 Willey Road in the Spring Hill industrial park for the school department’s expanding Pre-K program. Toddle Inn currently operates a daycare center at the building, which is slated to close in June.

School board member Steve Shiman said at a Saco City Council workshop on Monday that the expanded Pre-K program at the Toddle Inn location would be a big draw to people looking to move to Saco.

“We feel it’s a good move,” he said.

The proposed lease was brought up for discussion at Monday’s meeting after City Administrator Kevin Sutherland raised concerns that putting a public school at 5 Willey Road would violate city and federal covenants governing the Spring Hill Industrial Park.

City attorney Tim Murphy said according to city covenant, nonprofit use is not a conforming use in the Spring Hill park without a council waiver. However, he said, should the council allow the school in the park, it would send the message that covenants don’t have to be followed.

“It should have been brought to you preemptively,” said Murphy to the council.

Murphy said that officials from Toddle Inn should have disclosed covenant conditions to the school board, though the day are could argue that the school should have done research.

No one from Toddle Inn came forward at the meeting and multiple phone calls and emails to Toddle Inn representatives have not been returned.

Saco Director of Development and Planning Denise Clavette said putting a public school at the Spring Hill could also be a violation of a federal covenant. She said violating the federal covenant could require the city to pay back federal grants used to build the industrial park, which Murphy said he believed was about $2 million, and it could put the city at risk when pursuing future funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Louis Waterhouse said he owns the abutting property in the industrial park. He said he was in favor of a Pre-K, but he was not in favor of the Willey Road location. He said he thought the lease was too expensive and a school was not an appropriate use for a property in an industrial park, which is created with the intent to generate income for the city.

“This is a bad deal for all taxpayers in the city,” said Waterhouse. “You can do better than this. You can find a better location for Pre-K.”

Bette Brunswick, chairwoman of the city’s Economic Development Commission, said when the commission heard about the potential lease, “it took most of us by surprise.”

She said the daycare center was an appropriate use for the building, as it was a benefit for the local workforce. She said the commission would have to discuss the issue further before determining if a city school would be an appropriate use.

School board Chairman Garrett Abrahamson said that though it was a nonprofit use, the property owner was still paying taxes. He also said although $30 a square foot was more expensive than other places, the building was an ideal design for a school, and a new building would cost “seven or eight figures.”

Councilor Alan Minthorn questioned how the school department could have missed the covenant restrictions during discussions with the building owner and he wasn’t in favor of a lease that could potentially break federal covenant.

“All that being said, we still need a place to put 118 Pre-K students,” he said.

No decision was made Monday night, but with the council potentially not in favor of the lease, the city needs to explore other options and have further conversations with its attorney, said Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland.

Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be reached at 780-9015 or by email at [email protected].

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