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Required vote complicates transfer of Seminary Hill School to city from school district

  • Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara asked the school district to turn over ownership of the former Seminary Hill School building to the city for use as a community center. In turn, the city would pay for repairs for the 1901 building, which houses the district's administrative offices. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2021 9:04:34 PM
Modified: 9/13/2021 9:04:34 PM

WEST LEBANON — School officials are under a tight deadline to plot a future for the former Seminary Hill School after a legal review found that a citywide vote is required to transfer ownership of the West Lebanon building.

The city earlier this year offered to take responsibility for the three-story brick structure on Route 10 that houses SAU 88’s offices and turn it into a community center.

Under a proposal put forward by Mayor Tim McNamara, the city would pay for heating upgrades estimated to cost about $500,000, and the school district would remain headquartered there for a “nominal fee.”

Superintendent Joanne Roberts said last week that city officials haven’t yet offered lease figures, but $140,000 — about the yearly cost to maintain the building — was “tossed around.”

However, any deal that school and city officials negotiate has to come before voters, according to a legal review presented to the School Board during its regular meeting on Wednesday.

One warrant article is needed to transfer the property while another requiring 60% approval would allow a long-term lease, the review said.

That means negotiations need to wrap up around November — when administrators normally present draft warrant articles to the School Board — for any deal to take effect next year.

“We certainly have a lot on our plate between now and November,” School Board Chairman Dick Milius said in a phone interview Monday.

He’s invited McNamara and City Manager Shaun Mulholland to the board’s October meeting to answer questions and get officials “on common ground.”

“Nobody on the board rejected the idea out of hand,” Milius said. “There are lots of questions, though. Those tend to revolve around the gym and auditorium.”

Board members last week worried that any renovation proposed by the city could displace programs that utilize the former school’s auditorium, gymnasium and library.

The Seminary Hill School housed classes until 2014 when a school consolidation effort also closed the old Sacred Heart and School Street schools.

Since then, the city has hosted forums in the auditorium, while everything from track practices to family game nights rented space in the gym and conference rooms. (The building was closed for much of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

“My biggest concern is not about us,” Roberts told the School Board in a CATV recording of the meeting. “It’s about our students and the use of (the building).”

School Board members agreed that more information is needed for them to commit to transferring ownership of the building. But, they added, that shouldn’t stop talks with the city.

“I’m certainly interested in continuing the conversation with them,” board member Tammy Begin said.

McNamara, the mayor, said he’s also “hopeful” a deal will be reached, adding that he plans to be at the board’s October meeting.

“I think it’s a very ambitious schedule but we’re going to try to make it,” he said.

McNamara added that the first step to transferring ownership of the school building is a feasibility study that the city is prepared to start “at any time.”

McNamara, a West Lebanon native, has long hoped to create a community center in the neighborhood, which residents argue doesn’t enjoy downtown’s level of investment or care.

The Seminary Hill building would be a good home for Lebanon’s Recreation, Arts and Parks Department because of its location near key recreation sites, including the nearby Civic Memorial Park and John Bryar Field, he said in May.

Lebanon’s recreation offices were moved to River Valley Community College’s Lebanon Mall campus — where they remain — to make room for the recent $6.7 million City Hall renovation project.

Some officials and residents also mused that 38 Maple St., which was initially intended to house a new West Lebanon fire station, could be used for a community center.

But McNamara said councilors “have not even considered” that idea.

“We’re so focused on Seminary Hill because we think that has the best possibility,” he said.

The City Council will decide Wednesday night whether to spend $775,000 to purchase that Maple Street property, a 2-acre lot that was left largely unused after West Lebanon’s Catholic parish closed in 2003.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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