Opportunity to buy an elementary school, a unique opportunity for Allenstown, but some are wary of the cost

Allenstown voters want to make sure they know what they’re buying before committing to elementary school for $1.

The school district is building a new elementary school on River Road, which will house students in kindergarten through eighth grade. When the new school opens in the fall of 2023, the existing middle school and elementary school will become vacant.

City officials want residents to approve the possibility of converting the elementary school into a new town hall and community center with a gymnasium and meeting space. Given the elementary school’s size of 33,000 square feet, the remaining space would be available for businesses to lease.

“It just gives us strengths that we don’t have that I think we need as a community,” City Manager Derik Goodine said during the city’s deliberative session on Saturday. “Building a building like this would cost millions of dollars. I think we’re only talking about a few hundred thousand dollars to renovate it.

Not everyone immediately agreed with the plan.

City and school officials had originally hoped to sell the elementary and middle school buildings and use the proceeds for payments for the new school. However, they recently learned that any money made from the sale of the buildings would simply reduce the state’s contribution to the project.

“Part of the reason I voted for the new school was that we were going to sell these schools rather than continue a city obligation,” said resident Matt Pitaro, who is a state representative. “Yet the plan for the city right now is that they want to keep the schools as bonds.”

Pitaro was among the group of residents who wanted to make sure the March 8 vote would not force the city to buy the school, but to explore it further.

Others wanted to keep in mind a longer term vision of the city’s future. Projects like a new K-8 school can be transformative for a community. Plus, with two vacant schools in the heart of the city, Allenstown has a unique chance to reinvent itself.

“I’m always concerned about finding ways to improve the town’s economy and looking for more business activity,” said Michael Frascinella, the head of Allenstown’s economic development committee. “It’s my way of thinking that if they sold it, we wouldn’t have any control over its end use. So it would be a lot better for the city if we took control of the property.

This year, voters will be asked to explore only the purchase of the primary school, considered to be in better condition than Armond Dupont College. A second mandate article asks voters to put $100,000 into a special fund to assess the condition of the elementary school, which is currently valued at $1.8 million, and determine how much it would cost to renovate.

“As you start to put the pieces together of what the community needs, elementary school made a lot of sense,” Goodine said.

At next year’s town hall, voters will be told the true costs of the project, Goodine said. One of the benefits of the current process is that there is no rush to make a decision as the new school is still in the design phase and is approximately 18 months away from opening.

Later, the city might also consider acquiring Dupont School, even to keep the land and sell the building, Goodine said.

“With an old school, you never know what kind of interest you’ll find there,” Goodine said.

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