By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — The Conway School Board on Monday voted not to revisit leasing vacant space at Kennett Middle School to Robert Frost Charter School.
The decision came despite state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut's calling three school board members to personally ask for support of the charter school.
Board Chairman Joe Lentini made a motion to revisit the lease — which charter school officials had originally sought two years ago — but the vote ended in a 3-3 tie, and thus failed. Lentini was joined by Syndi White and Randy Davison in the minority, while Mark Hounsell, Jessica Whitelaw and Joe Mosca prevailed with their opposition to reopening the matter.
Board member Michelle Capozzoli, who could not attend, had emailed her colleagues to hold off discussing the topic until their July 10 meeting.
In the summer of 2015, Robert Frost officials reached out to the district about leasing mothballed space at the middle school. But on Aug. 24, 2015, members voted 6-1 (Davison in the minority) against entering into a 10-year lease agreement.
About 9,000 square feet of unused classrooms on the second floor of the 1938 wing of the middle school building has sat dormant for the past four years.
Jim Hill, director of administrative services for SAU 9 projected the cost to operate the middle school at $10.91 per square foot. Based on that, the rent would need to be $98,190 per year, he said.
The charter school had opened in 2012 to grades 1-4. The school is now a K-8 school.
It had occupied the building between Settlers Green Streetside and Friendly's Restaurant at 1675 White Mountain Highway, but that building was razed for a parking lot for Streetside earlier this month.
The move was anticipated, and Robert Frost officials said they signed a purchase agreement for the former Journey Church on Route 113 in Conway. Journey Church is constructing a larger building further east on Route 113.
Amy Mahoney of the charter school board said work on retrofitting the church building was planned to start in July. The school and the church would share the space until the new church is completed, Pastor Trevor Skalberg said in earlier interviews.
Calls to the charter School and Journey Church were not returned as of press time Tuesday.
Angela Zakon and Anastasia Burns, charter school board members, attended Monday's school board meeting, but did not speak.
Under Board Member Issues, Lentini said he and Capozzoli met with charter school officials last Wednesday.
"They have asked us to revisit looking at them occupying space in the middle school," he said. "That said, I'm making a motion that we revisit the charter school leasing space from our school district."
Davison seconded, which led to a 25-minute discussion.
"The first time we had a certain figure that we were looking at (for rent), I think it was around $100,000," White said. "When they heard that, they said there was no way they could pay that amount of money. They were looking at, I think, more like below $70,000. So, what changed now?"
Lentini said he didn't feel it was the time or place to bring up finances. "I wasn't going to make any suggestions of what we needed until the board had a chance to look at it," he said.
Mosca asked how many students were enrolled in the charter school. Lentini said he was told it was 50.
Davison said the district is losing $64,000-$70,000 a year just in maintaining the vacant space at the middle school.
"The space is available, it's there," he said. "I think it would behoove us to actually generate more conversation."
Hounsell mentioned "unseemly political pressure" from Edelblut and read a prepared statement, which said in part:
"The Robert Frost Charter School is in fiscal competition with the district for limited taxpayer resources. To place the Robert Frost Charter School in close proximity on the same campus as our middle school creates a real threat that the hoped-for improvements of the former will be at the expense of the latter."While we can support the option given to families for charter schools, we must be mindful that it is wise to maintain a healthy separation. In many ways the Robert Frost Charter School is our competitor as well as our neighbor, and while we are supportive of our neighbor we must be circumspect of our competition. In this instance, a 2-by-6 wall is not a sufficient separation between our competitor and ourselves.
"The Robert Frost Charter School and the Conway School District both require adequate physical separation to thrive. We need to maintain a healthy distance between their schoolhouse and ours.
"To quote from the poet Robert Frost, 'good fences make good neighbors.'"
White said she still had "a lot of questions," such as why officials want to revisit what seemed to be a closed matter. But, she said, "I'm willing to listen to what they have to say and what their proposals are."
Whitelaw said her concerns are that "space has been discussed as recently as last spring as being used for several different ideas (including renting it to the town recreation department). I feel like if we lease it, we're going to take all those options off the table."
Hounsell wanted to know "how quickly are we going to have to move," if the charter school has to be open to students in September.
Lentini said if the board agreed to revisit the subject, it could request a detailed proposal.
"What was the impetus for us to do this?" Hounsell demanded. "If we're about local control, then we darn well better be a little concerned why this topic has come back up and why we're considering using my time and the facilities committee's time and staff time to look at something that we've already looked at and already determined, and, yet we're bringing it up because of political connections and the commissioner of education gets involved, makes a phone call and we jump through the hoops. I'm a little bit scuffed up about that."
Hounsell, Lentini and Capozzoli each received calls from Edelblut; SAU 9 Superintendent Kevin Richard did not.
"I guess I was left out of the loop on this one," Richard said Thursday.
Capozzoli wrote in an email: "I feel that the commissioner has overstepped his bounds in calling board members when the charter school has not even stated what they want. He did admit that they contacted him before they contacted us. This does bother me and I told him so."
"We're setting a precedent if we do this," Hounsell said. "We're saying, if you don't like the decision the school board makes, just go and bitch to the commissioner of education and he'll make us do it."
"That is irrelevant to my thought," Lentini said. "I was approached by a member of the community who asked us to revisit an issue."