2016-01-15 / Front Page

Committee to decide fate of Spurwink School

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

The new Thomas Memorial Library, right, is in the finishing stages of a $4 million make-over and due to reopen Feb. 4, leaving open the fate of the old Spurwink District School, left, to be decided by a committee expected to be formed Feb. 1, at a joint workshop meeting of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council and the school board. (Duke Harrington photo) The new Thomas Memorial Library, right, is in the finishing stages of a $4 million make-over and due to reopen Feb. 4, leaving open the fate of the old Spurwink District School, left, to be decided by a committee expected to be formed Feb. 1, at a joint workshop meeting of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council and the school board. (Duke Harrington photo) CAPE ELIZABETH — A trio of intertwined topics will be taken up by the Town Council when it meets with the school board Feb. 1, potentially resulting in a new use for the old Spurwink School, new oversight for community services and new life in the town’s programming for senior citizens.

With Thomas Memorial Library set to re-open Feb. 4 following a yearlong, $4 million renovation, the council is poised to rule on what will happen to the original component of the old library, known as Spurwink School. The library’s namesake, William Widgery Thomas Jr. taught in the one-room schoolhouse during the winter of 1857 while an 18-year-old student at Bowdoin College. Later a lawyer, state legislator and U.S. ambassador, Thomas bought and donated the old school to Cape Elizabeth in 1919 for use as a library and the building was moved to its present location, where it was later joined to the old Pond Cove school to form the library as it served the town for the past three decades.

But with the renovation, the old Spurwink school is once again a free-standing structure, giving rise to questions about how it might be used in the future.

At a Jan. 7 workshop session, the town council agreed to form a four-person committee — two councilors and two school board members — to decide on a future use for the structure.

Town policy is to first offer surplus property in-house and, according to Town Manager Michael McGovern, the school department offered the “only sustentative proposal” for the former library component.

However, not everyone is quite clear on what that proposal might be.

“I’m totally baffled about what their proposal is,” Councilor Katharine Ray said, at the Jan. 7 meeting.

A two-page outline submitted by the school department envisions re-use of the former Spurwink School as the “C.A.P.E. HUB,” describing its purpose as “a laboratory for teaching and learning, and incubator for school and community collaborations, (and) a center for creativity.”

Among a host of possible uses under that banner, the school department cited in its memo: student workshop space, a place for professional development for staff, a home for summer literacy programming, a performance stage, an art gallery, a video production studio, a living history museum, and private work space for resident artists, writers and entrepreneurs.

Unclear in the proposal, however, given use of the C.A.P.E. acronym, is what relationship, if any, management of the building would have to advocacy groups other than the actual school department.

“I thought that was a totally separate group,” Ray said.

Determining that, as well as a specific use, remains to be hammered out.

“If you read that (proposal), as Kathy said, it’s easy to go away scratching your head,” McGovern said. “These are all interesting concepts, but I don’t see the ability to make a decision based on a concept.”

The new four-person ad hoc committee would narrow in on details, McGovern said, “utilizing a business model clarifying costs, funding sources and anticipated outcomes resulting from implementation of the proposal.” The working group, once formed, would return a specific proposal for the building, as soon as possible. “One concern I have is that I don’t like to have buildings be empty for a long time,” McGovern said. “The building needs to have a use if it’s going to be preserved and maintained.” Still, the structure itself, not just what may happen inside of it, could play a part in any final decision.

“I don’t know what the structural integrity of the building is and how that relates to any possibilities (for use),” said Councilor Caitlin Jordan, noting its age, closing in on 175 years.“I want to know a little bit more about the building itself.” Spinning out of that decision is the future of the town’s community services department, which manages the Donald Richards Community Pool and a host of youth and fitness activities. However, there has been a call for the department to provide more programs for senior citizens, giving the aging demographics of Cape Elizabeth. A report completed last year by an ad hoc senior citizens advisory committee called on community services to step up in that capacity, while many have suggested the best use for the old Spurwink School might be as a senior center.

Cape Elizabeth Community Services was created in 1977 to formalize the town’s “hodge podge of recreational activities,” McGovern said.

Initially aimed at residents of all ages, the department ran for several years under a committee appointed by the town council and school board. However, as the focus turned increasingly to youth services, and, in the 1990s, the department began to take on transportation and custodian services for the school department. As a result, the department slowly transitioned into a branch of the school department, with its director reporting directly to the superintendent and its governing committee appointed solely by the school board.

However, as many department functions, such as preschool services, have been superseded by the addition of all-day kindergarten to the school curriculum, and as the school considers a more formal preschool program, there has been a recent rethink on its place in the municipal hierarchy.

“It has become more crucial than ever to provide additional focus on what community services can offer to all citizens of Cape Elizabeth,” McGovern said.

As such, the town manager has proposed moving the community services department out from under the school umbrella and making it a municipal department.

The idea, to be considered at the Feb. 1 workshop, will be to move make the transfer with the start of the next fiscal year budget, starting July 1.

“This includes all programs including the pool, youth programs, pre- and after-school care, community enrichment programs, programs focused on senior citizens, and (management of) the community center,” McGovern said.

If the transfer happens, members of the department’s advisory commission would become town council appointees as current terms expire.

That change would, McGovern said, lead to full implementation of the senior task force recommendations.

“If the recommendation is adopted, we are then well positioned to utilize the existing community services department framework to deliver the desired program outcomes desired by the seniors advisory committee,” he said.

It would then fall to the community services advisory commission to review and recommend to the town council means for implementing all recommendations of the senior citizens task force, which could include hiring a department staffer to focus solely on senior needs.

How that might impact plans for the Spurwink School remains to be seen.

The task force called on the town to reserve a space to act as a senior hall. However, McGovern wrote in a memo to the town council that, “The community services department should be charged with conducting a review of space within the community center to accomplish this objective.”

Still, the senior citizen task force clearly envisions something more substantial, writing in its final report, “if the concept of a senior hall were to flourish, future discussion should ensue to determine the feasibility of expanding this community resource to a more permanent structure.”

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