Saco has been approved by the Maine Board of Education for school construction funding – and the school department held a forum a week ago to inform people about the process. Courtesy Image/Saco School Department

SACO — It is a lengthy, 21-point process, but at the end, Saco school children will get a big reward — a new school in which to learn.

What sort of school — what the composition of the grades will be, how big it will be — and other factors, like where it will be, are yet to be determined.

On a recent evening, the Saco School Department held a forum — a kick-off meeting — to let residents know about the process, where it is at, and where it is going.

Superintendent of Schools Jeremy Ray said the exercise would be “one of the most exciting projects we will have for the school department since the last time you built a school.”

The process for a new public school began several years ago. In the Maine Department of Education’s 2017-2018 rating cycle, Saco’s Young School came up fourth place on the priority list of seven statewide, for school construction. On Nov. 4, 2020, the Maine Board of Education moved the Saco school to the approved list — one of five schools poised for state construction funding. It is the only community on the list in York County.

Saco will be building a new school within the next few years, and is in the process now of deciding how many students it will educate, which grades, and where it will be located. Journal Tribune file photo

Ray told the group assembled at C.K. Burns School and those in the home audience, viewing by internet, that Oak Point Associates has been selected as the architect to represent Saco.

“When we make local decisions, they’ll turn it into what the building will look like,” he said, in part.

Ray said the school department has a “very robust” list of possible sites and a draft site matrix scoring system has been created.

“We want to make sure we don’t lock in on one plan, and look at all alternatives and provide a clear rating system of what we think will be one of the best sites for a school,” said Ray.

It is unclear at this stage what the building will look like or how many grades it will accommodate.

Saco public schools educate children in Pre-kindergarten through Grade 8. The city pays tuition to the private Thornton Academy for Saco high school students.

Rob Tillotson, founder and president of Oak Point Associates,  pointed out that Young School was named in the state’s process, “but at this stage, it’s a school. You may decide to do a PreK-Grade 5 or Grade 1-3, something that takes care of the need for Young School — or it could be a completely different school.”

After an analysis of possibilities, which is step 5 in the 21-step process, comes a city-wide straw poll, one of a couple among the way. There are several other steps, with a local referendum at stage 13.

Tillotson told the group that the state approves 20 acres, plus 1 acre for every 100 students — so if a school is poised to educate 300 students, 23 acres of usable land would be required.

He noted that in one Maine community, the town decided to buy more land than the state was prepared to purchase on their behalf, and so paid  for the extra. Another community was looking at sustainability issues and a roof top water collection system for flushing toilets was created, and paid by the municipality.

Ray said utilities like water, sewer and 3-phase power are important, as well as a site that can handle traffic and does not add “major minutes” to existing bus routes.

“If it adds 20 minutes to one side of town, we may see more parents dropping their kids off, which adds traffic frustrations,” Ray noted. He said considerations like whether the current bus fleet would be able to handle a new school — depending on the size — or if new buses are needed, is another consideration.

A member of the audience asked if the state would be funding one school building.

“The state isn’t saying ‘we’ll come solve all your problems,'” said Ray. “If we as a community select a replacement for Young School, we are very clear what the other challenges are that remain, and I expect there will be conversations about equity. We will have to be very focused. This is our bite at the apple. As a community, we have to determine what the right bite is.”

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