LEWISTON — A school department proposal to convert the Multi-Purpose Center on Birch Street into a pre-kindergarten school got a cool reception from City Councilors and senior citizens Tuesday night.
"I see that building for what it is, a multipurpose center," said Willie Danforth, commander of the Franco American War Veterans Post 31. "We need to keep it that way. We need to keep a facility for folks in this community to go to and enjoy."
Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster recommended that the Multi-Purpose Center be converted into the new Lewiston Early Childhood Development Center.
The move would mean that the Birch Street facility would no longer house senior citizen activities and that ownership would be transferred from the city to the School Department.
The early childhood center would open in fall 2012, and would house all of the city's pre-kindergarten students, freeing up classroom space at all of the city's elementary schools.
"If present trends continue, we expect to continue enrolling new kindergarten students to the tune of about 460 per year," Webster told Councilors. "At that rate, we will be growing by about 100 students per year for the foreseeable future."
The school system will need at least four new classrooms by the start of school in 2012 and moving the early childhood students into one space is one way to solve the problem.
Councilors said Tuesday's discussion was only the opening round and that they did not plan on making any decisions about the center for some time.
They were skeptical of the plan, however. Councilor Renee Bernier said she expected she would no longer be on the council when the final vote was cast but she warned school officials that seniors would fill council chambers to defend their center.
"There have to be alternatives you can start looking at instead of replacing the seniors at the Multi-Purpose Center," she said. "I'm just warning you, because I'll be watching it on TV when the chambers are quite full."
About 35 seniors attended the meeting, and they were more than happy to defend their community center.
"The question is this: Who came first?" said Ray Mathieu, 65, of 55 Fisher Ave. "Was it the senior citizens who have been paying taxes all their lives to make that building possible? Or was it the pre-kindergartners, who had nothing at all to do with that building?"
But councilors did agree to $600,000 in work and studies of existing school properties.
The entire slate of changes were part of a short-term facilities improvement plan Webster presented. He proposed a $40,000 energy audit at Lewiston High School, a $75,000 architectural and engineering review of the Lewiston Middle School and $485,000 to install new boilers at the Longley School and convert it to natural gas.
The money was reallocated from a previous boiler replacement project at the McMahon School. Webster said the school district had approved a bond issue for that work but signed a lease-purchase agreement instead.