AUBURN — Some citizens at a public hearing Wednesday night blasted an idea to close neighborhood schools and build one campus for the city's 3,600 students.
Others said they liked the idea and encouraged the Auburn School Department to develop that proposal.
The consensus for the future of the city's school buildings was that something must be done very soon to make Edward Little High School a place of which the community can be proud.
“EL has to be fixed,” said mother-of-three Judith Prentice. “I will not send my kids to a run-down, unaccredited high school. It won't happen. My husband and I have had several conversations about putting the house up for sale and moving.”
Prentice and others commented on two school consolidation building plans presented by an Auburn Master Facilities Committee on Wednesday night.
One plan calls for closing East Auburn Community School and Washburn Elementary; turning Walton Elementary into space for alternative programs, adult education, special education and administrative offices; renovating Edward Little; expanding Auburn Middle School; and building a new prekindergarten school somewhere in the city.
The second plan is to build a huge campus, resembling a university campus, to house pre-K through grade 12 students at one site. That plan would mean finding a large location, building new buildings over the next 15 years and closing most of the existing school buildings.
Retired educator Alfreda Fournier was vehemently opposed to the one-large-campus concept. It was introduced in Auburn years ago “and I voted against it at that time,” Fournier said. She called it a costly plan that would weigh heavily on taxpayers.
The paramount focus must be on Edward Little, which should be “Auburn's showcase and gathering point for our community,” Fournier said.
Fournier said she was frustrated that after so many years the school has not received state funding to be renovated or rebuilt. In the past four decades she's seen the closing of many neighborhood schools: Great Falls, Chamberlain, Franklin, Stevens Mills, Merrill Hill, C.P. Wight, Lake Street and Webster. The East Auburn Community School should not join that list, she said. “I have watched my grandson blossom and flourish in this old, small school with a shared cafeteria/gym,” Fournier said.
Tizz Crowley, recently elected to the Auburn City Council, called the state of Edward Little a crisis. "Delay there is not an option,” she said. An action plan is needed for the high school, she said.
Crowley spoke in favor of a campus setting for all Auburn students, and pointed out that most students don't walk to school.
“Neighborhood schools do not go away with a comprehensive campus,” Crowley said. “There's nothing in the comprehensive campus plan that says we can't maintain small buildings (with personalized, individualized teaching)."
Tracey Levesque, recently elected to the Auburn School Committee, also favored the campus idea. Traffic at Fairview Elementary School and Auburn Middle School is dangerous, she said.
Sue Martin said one campus was not the direction to go. She expressed concern that discussion about closing schools and creating an all-in-one campus “is going to get us off base on what the most pressing issue is."
That would be Edward Little, whose accreditation is at risk due to the poor conditions of the high school. The school, built in 1961, has inadequate electrical and heating systems. It lacks room for today's educational needs, and has no auditorium. Its kitchen and cafeteria are too small and are in the basement, originally intended for storage. The school lacks science labs, is poorly insulated, and is either too hot or too cold.
Convincing Auburn taxpayers to pay for a new or improved high school “with 100 percent local money, that in itself is an overwhelming task,” Martin said. Debate about creating a campus and closing down schools could “create a backlash from the taxpaying community, in that we're not talking about the most immediate need.”
Consultant Michael McCormick opened the public hearing by saying the Auburn School Department has 11 buildings valued at $105 million, but those buildings need $56 million worth of improvements. Taxpayers have been spending about $1.3 million a year for upkeep, but that hasn't kept pace, he said.
The Auburn Master Facilities Committee will discuss feedback from Wednesday's public hearing when it meets at 4 p.m. Thursday. Members will give their final recommendations to the School Committee on Dec. 7.