The Saco Pre-K facility at 5 Wiley Road, owned by the Toddle Inn. Journal Tribune file Photo

SACO — “I’ve never been a fan of this situation,” said Saco School Board Member Beth Johnston of Ward 7 at a board meeting on Oct. 25.

The situation in question is the pre-K facility located at the former Toddle Inn. The topic was on the agenda for the two most recent Saco School Board meetings.

The lease signed between the Saco School Department and the Toddle Inn ends on May 31, 2025, ahead of when Saco’s two new school buildings are expected to be operational.

Assistant School Superintendent Meg Parkhurst said that if all goes well, the new school buildings — one for first through fifth graders and another for pre-K and kindergarten students — could be ready for the start of the 2027 school year. But she cautioned that the target date was tentative and subject to delays.

With that timeline in mind, the Saco School Board and the superintendent need to figure out where to house the pre-K program during that interim period.

Saco Schools Superintendent Jeremy Ray told the School Board on Oct. 25 that he was eager to dive into the process with plenty of time to get board members “up to speed” and revisit work that had been previously done on this question — referencing the tangled history of the Toddle Inn lease signing.


Four years ago, facing a shortage of space in the pre-K program, the School Board authorized then-Superintendent Dominic DePatsy to sign a 10-year lease with Toddle Inn Daycare, Inc. to rent a space at 5 Willey Road in the Saco Industrial Park.

The original lease dated May 2019, mandated a $24,000 security deposit and $24,000 a month starting rent. It also stipulated a 2 percent annual increase in rent each year and required the tenants to pay real estate taxes, building insurance, maintenance, and utilities.

Additionally, it included a clause that would have given the school the option to purchase the property. That’s not something the school board can agree to without the consent of  the city, said outgoing Mayor Bill Doyle at a recent school board meeting, recalling the episode.

The decision to lease the building did not get the City Council’s sign off, according to Journal Tribune reporting at the time — and the issue of the property purchase clause was far from the only hitch.

Shortly after the lease was signed, city officials told the school district that the space could not be used to house the pre-K because business park covenants barred the city from operating a public school in the business park. The Toddle Inn pushed back, saying that the lease was valid.

There were also problems with the facility itself. The city electrical inspector found that the space had not been inspected since 2005. This same city official found other permitting and electrical issues, including that the building’s heating and cooling equipment never underwent electrical inspection when the facility switched from natural gas to propane, according to the Journal Tribune.


As a result, the city shut off the building’s electricity on July 30 (the lease began on July 1), a move that the school department appealed and City Council voted unanimously to uphold. At the time, pre-K students were attending classes at a different space. The school department advocated for their continued use of the facility, appealing to multiple city bodies in fall 2019, but was rebuffed.

In May 2020, the school department and the city forged an agreement with the Toddle Inn, that saw the city sign off on all zoning issues, according to reporting at the time. As a result of negotiations, the lease between the school and Toddle Inn was amended and signed in June 2020. The amendment shortened the term of the lease to expire in 2025, instead of 2029. The amended lease also decreased the amount that Saco schools must pay in rent for the space and removed the provision that the school had the option to buy the property.

This history loomed over school board discussions of the Toddle Inn space on Oct. 25 and Nov. 8. “It was a very convoluted system from the start,” said member Beth Johnston, speaking of the arrangement between the school district and the Toddle Inn. Johnston was a member of the school board in 2019, when this unfolded.

School Board Member William Gayle said that he thought extending the lease at the Toddle Inn on favorable terms should be an option on the table, citing his experience with the facility. “Just from my experience from my kids going through it, it seems alright,” he said on Nov. 8.

Member Beth Johnston disagreed, saying she thought the school board was better off casting their lot with a new space, citing cost and her desire to bring the school under “their) own supervision.”

On Nov. 8, Superintendent Ray said that the finance and infrastructure committee had identified 21 locations to house the pre-K for the full board to consider. He emphasized the need to be careful and methodical in considering the future space, saying he was in favor of evaluating locations on a matrix that takes into account items like ADA compliance, the number of classrooms, school safety, proximity to public services, proximity to other schools, and outdoor space.

Discussion concluded with Ray saying that the school leadership needed to do more work to concretize their options.

“There’s a whole lot more to come,” he said.

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