The Saco School Department has signed a lease with the Toddle Inn to use a Willey Road building for its Pre-K program. The city administrator says the lease violates business park covenants. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

SACO – Saco parents have been notified that their children will be attending Pre-K at the former Toddle Inn building at Willey Road this fall. However, the city administrator says students signed up for Pre-K will attend school in September, but not at the Willey Road location.

With the first year of a new Pre-K program at the city’s community center hailed as a success, the Saco School Department has expanded the program and intends to serve about 128 students in the fall. Expansion of the program meant a need for more space, and last month the school board voted to sign a lease with Toddle Inn to use a building at 5 Willey Road that until this month was being used for a day care facility.

Saco School Board Chairman Garrett Abrahamson said at a Saco City Council meeting last month that the building was ideal for the program’s needs as the building already had a classroom layout and was designed to accommodate young children.

There is a problem, however, with the location, according to Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland and other city officials. The 5 Willey Road property is situated in the Spring Hill business park where there are covenants preventing non-tax paying entities from locating there.

“While the Toddle Inn facility would make an excellent Pre-K, it’s located in a place where we have covenants that prevent that type of use of a non-tax paying entity,” said Sutherland in an interview Wednesday at Saco City Hall. “And a non-tax paying entity can not locate in this particular industrial park.”

Federal money was used to help build the business park’s infrastructure, with the expectation that local industry will come into the park, bring jobs and help the local economy, said Sutherland.

Should the city not follow the covenants, it not only stands at risk of having to pay back some of the federal money it received to help build the Spring Hill business park, but it also puts itself at risk of not qualifying for future federal funding to develop other business parks, said Sutherland.

Abrahamson and Saco Superintendent of Schools Dominic DePatsy said in emails earlier this week that the school department is moving forward with the lease as initially planned.

A letter to parents was sent out this month from the school department saying that it planned to move into the Toddle Inn building on July 1. Pre-K classes begin on Sept. 5.

The city also sent a letter to Toddle Inn on June 19 saying that if in a month, if it continues to move forward with the existing lease, the city will have to take action against them.

“This isn’t about not wanting to help kids, it’s about following proper process,” said Sutherland. “If we don’t do this, it impact our code enforcement’s ability to enforce zoning regulations.”

Code Enforcement Officer Dick Lambert said in a written statement that it is important to ensure that all parties consistently comply with the city’s zoning ordinance and park covenants.

“If we ignore the requirements or restrictions in this case, then our ability to enforce deed restrictions in future cases will be impacted. The city and city-affiliated entities, like the schools, must follow the same regulations imposed on others,” said Lambert.

The school department had the authority to sign a lease without consulting the city council or the city administrator, however, Sutherland said he believes the school department could have benefited from working together with the city council.

“Quality education is a top priority for our community,” said Sutherland.

He said he does not have an answer exactly where the Pre-K program will be located in the fall, but the city is working to find a location so that all students enrolled in the program will attend school in September.

Abrahamson said in an email on Thursday that the school department had no further response on the matter. Toddle Inn officials did not respond to media inquiries.

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

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