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Westbrook School Department central office emerges as a City Hall alternative

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Posted: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 6:21 pm

WESTBROOK – The Westbrook School Department’s central office building could play a new role – City Hall.

As the city explores options for selling or leasing the building that now houses City Hall, the subsequent move would also involve combining city and school offices under one roof. The frontrunner for a new City Hall is the Fred C. Wescott Building at 426 Bridge St., but the central office is a building that deserves consideration, according to School Superintendent Marc Gousse.

Gousse said this week that old plans for the initial construction of the district’s central office, located next door to the high school at 125 Stroudwater St., called for a larger building than was actually constructed. The city could simply add onto the present building and make that City Hall’s new location, he said.

Gousse stressed, however, that no one had made any decisions yet, and he was not trying to talk anyone into or out of anything.

“It’s just another opportunity to take a look at,” he said.

The City Council recently voted to solicit proposals from commercial brokers, in order to determine the real market value of 2 York St. were the city to sell off the property. The move is the opening act of vacating of the York Street building, which has been anticipated since Wescott Junior High School closed in 2010.

Westbrook officials have a plan to fund renovations of the Wescott building to make it suitable for use as a municipal and school department building, and even have a rough sketch of where new offices would be located, should the move become reality.

The idea, officials have said, is to consolidate unused space the city has, and sell or lease any empty buildings. The need for consolidation has only become more apparent, officials have said, since the School Committee made an initial vote last month to close Prides Corner Elementary School, built in 1950.

The committee is expected to vote to confirm the closure at its next meeting, March 14. Other buildings throughout the city that house public services equipment could also become vacant if the city builds a new, larger complex for that department on Saco Street.

City officials added the consolidation of the schools’ central offices to its plans to move City Hall after Mayor Colleen Hilton, in a series of high-profile decisions following her inauguration in 2010, combined previously separated school and municipal finance departments, followed by similar consolidations of human resources offices.

Now, to make that new relationship work better, officials want to see both municipal and school department offices sharing a building, something that Gousse said he strongly supports.

“We’re very much on board with the idea of being under one roof,” he said. “I just don’t know where that roof is.”

Jeremy Ray, the district’s director of operations, has been in charge of assessing the school department’s building needs since he was named to the position last fall. On Tuesday, Ray said he had not done any formal study of the central office building yet, and is waiting for an approach from city officials to work on the study together.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said both he and school officials are busy with their respective budgets, and haven’t had a chance to look into the central office option. Bryant said he also didn’t want to press the issue while the school department is working out the details of closing an elementary school and reconfiguring the city’s remaining schools.

“Obviously, their plate’s pretty full right now,” Bryant said.

But, Bryant said, he expects the city will work “collaboratively” with school officials in the near future on just what the city’s needs are, and whether the central office building could accommodate those needs.

Ray said Tuesday that the central office building consists of a 4,000-square-foot original building, and a 3,600-square-foot addition. Exact dates on construction of both were not available this week, but, Ray said, plans do exist for a previously rejected proposal from 15-20 years ago to expand the building. Logic, he said, suggests that any addition to the building today could use those old plans as a template.

City officials have said that to accommodate both school and municipal offices, some 20,000 square feet would be required.

There is also no price tag available for moving City Hall to 125 Stroudwater St., but, Ray said, at first glance, there’s a chance the cost would at least equal a move to the Wescott building – and using the central office building instead might even be cheaper.

“I think it’s an option,” he said.

Welcome to the discussion.