February 9, 2013

Divided Burnham puts schoolhouse's future, and age-old debate, before voters

It's east vs. west as community debates whether to move Town Office to vacant Burnham Village School building

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

BURNHAM -- Burnham is a town divided.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

The closed Burnham Village School on Wednesday. Town officials are still discussing how to utilize the building after voters approved using it as a town office.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Burnham Village and Burnham have always been separated by distance, but more recently they have been split by opinion.

The issue between the two communities, which are in the same municipal boundary but miles apart by car, is the fate of the former Burnham Village School building.

On the eastern side of town, many want to sell the building and keep the Town Office where it is -- in their community.

On the western side, many residents want the Town Office moved to the vacant building -- in their community.

To accommodate a town office, the former school building would need more than $100,000 in renovations. The current office needs more than $100,000 in repairs.

Some say moving the office to the school will double the size of their community center, others say it could double the cost of yearly operations and maintenance.

The issue has been going on for more than a year, played out in public hearings, a straw poll, petitions and an Election Day vote.

Next month, however, the issue might be settled once and for all.

Under legal advice from the Maine Municipal Association, the town will put the question to vote again on March 15, the night before Town Meeting. Voters will decide whether to move the Town Office or sell the Village School.

New school vs. old school

Selectman Stuart Huff walked through the vacant school building and pointed out two classrooms that would be converted into the Town Office. Sunlight poured into the former classrooms, but the air was cold and his voice echoed through the empty space.

Huff said that in the ongoing debate, "I have my opinion, but I keep it to myself.

"I've got to do what the people want," he said. "I don't have any say."

The school was built as a two-room schoolhouse in the 1950s, Huff said. There was no lunchroom back then; kids ate sack lunches at their desks. The entire staff was two teachers -- one of whom also was also school principal.

In 1967, a wing with more classrooms was added. Then, about a decade ago, the school underwent $300,000 worth of repairs and upgrades. In 2010, the town acquired the 5,000-square-foot building from the school district after the kindergarten through grade four program was consolidated elsewhere. A year later, the town tried to sell the building for a high bid of $50,000 -- a move that was rejected by voters during a special town meeting in June 2011.

Then, the possibility of moving the Town Office arose.

According to a 48-page study by architecture students at University of Maine at Augusta, the school is a good fit for the Town Office and is twice the size of its current space.

"The unused school holds much potential for future development as a town hall. Not only does it provide ample space to increase town services, it also has the additional advantage of renting/leasing the extra space. Relocating also creates new possibilities to form an improved town center, enhance public gatherings, and encourage a stronger sense of community," according to the study.

A separate study performed by contractor Edward Porter of Pittsfield found the building will need $113,000 in repairs and upgrades -- including a new furnace, a vault for vital records and roof repairs.

The same study found that the town will have to spend $114,000 if the Town Office stays put.

Town Clerk Carolyn Hamel pointed to the back wall of the current Town Office on South Horseback Road. The wall is bowing in about 4 inches because of foundation problems.

(Continued on page 2)

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