“I felt I never would set one day in a new school. I just think it's great for these kids," says Beatrice Rafferty School Principal Michael Chadwick, concerning the frustration of waiting over 10 years for funding for a new school that was finally ended with the passage last week of a federal omnibus funding bill that includes $18.5 million for design and construction of the new school at Pleasant Point. Chadwick, who plans to retire in five years, says, "It's exciting. It makes it real now. It's been a fantasy, but now we can reach out and touch it."
One of the most important differences that the new school will bring "is pride," says the principal. "For the tribe, for the kids, it will be a school they can be proud of. It will be a beautiful school." Chadwick observes, "It will be wired for technology" and will have better security to keep the students and staff safe. "And hopefully it won't leak," he half jokes, noting that many new public buildings seem to have roof issues. The new school will have a library, music room, art room and space for technology storage and work. Except for the tarred playground, the present school has no outside space for athletics, while the new one will be right next to the Kcipeskiyak ball field.
Concerning the present building, Chadwick says, "It's not constructed for 21st century education. It served its time and served its purpose." The grades and programs are "really crammed in here," he says. Enrollment in the past few years has jumped 30% to 125-130 students. Chadwick points out that, while classes used to have a dozen or so students, during the past two years the Kindergarten classes have had 27 students each.
In addition to the school building, three other buildings have to be used -- a portable classroom for Kindergarten and Grade 1 that is attached to the school by a tunnel; a building across the street for the school's language and culture program; and a third one for adult education, speech and the math coach's office. The new school "will put us all under one building," says Chadwick, noting that it is important today to have students and staff in the same building because of safety and security concerns.
A number of issues with the building have arisen over the years, including water leaking into the building, which has caused mold, and problems with the roof, walls and foundation. The building was constructed in 1970, with an addition and renovations having been completed in 1986.
"This has been a long process," notes Chadwick, concerning the release of the funding. Ten years ago, the BRS replacement was ninth on the Bureau of Indian Education's (BIE) list of school construction projects, with three or four schools being funded each year. Chadwick notes that then, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a hurricane in New Orleans, "funding for infrastructure in the U.S." dried up and "the list became stagnant." While the new Pleasant Point school finally became the top one on the list, no BIE school construction projects were funded for the past two or three years.
There are 183 Native schools in the U.S., and the Pleasant Point school is the only one that will be funded in 2014. Chadwick gives kudos to the Maine congressional delegation for getting the funding for the school in the omnibus bill. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is a member of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over this funding, and at a hearing last February she made the case for funding the construction. In her testimony, Pingree said that since the school was placed on the priority construction list in 2004 "hundreds of thousands of additional dollars have been spent rebuilding walls that have been compromised, replacing a portion of the roof, and conducting ongoing mold inspections to make sure that their extensive mold growth hasn't become too toxic. Every day this continues we are sending the message that it is acceptable to allow 125 kids in Maine to breathe, play and learn in an extremely dangerous environment. This is simply unconscionable."
Ron Jenkins, superintendent of schools for Maine Indian Education, says, "I let the school committee know the good news Tuesday night [January 14], and they were very excited. We started that project 15 years ago, and now we're finally close to the point where we will be finally getting a new school,"
Last December architect Paul Lewandowski of SMRT in Portland had been selected by the Pleasant Point school board for the planning phase of the project, which will now move into the design phase. "We had our ducks lined up so that when we got notification of funding we could hit the ground running," Chadwick says. He's hoping that ground will be broken this year for the new school.
The new school will be located where the tribal office building is currently, with the tribe leasing 20 acres to the Bureau of Indian Education, which will own the building. The tribal office, which was constructed in 1993 at a cost of $900,000, has had mold and mildew issues and will be torn down. The tribal government tentatively has agreed to take over ownership of the Beatrice Rafferty School and will be able to charge a TERO tax on the contract for the new school building. Those funds could be used to renovate the existing school as the new tribal office or toward a new tribal office building.