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School officials change gears on ongoing use of Prescott school building

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GROTON — Town officials scrambled to adjust to a new environment in which the sale of the former Prescott Elementary School building was blocked by residents at the first session of fall town meeting.

Momentum for the expected sale of the historic building had reached a point where both town and school officials had fully expected authorization to proceed would be given to the Board of Selectmen but when the measure failed to receive a two-thirds vote of those attending town meeting, the status quo ante was restored.

Talk of a motion to reconsider the vote at the second session of town meeting never came to anything thus leaving the issue of what to do with the Prescott building squarely in the laps of selectmen.

What to do with Prescott had been the subject of planners for many years with a Prescott Reuse Committee formed to explore different options. And although there was strong support for keeping it as part of the town’s real estate inventory either to be converted to affordable housing, senior center, or community center, it was finally decided to sell the building for commercial use.

After a number of failed attempts to find a buyer, local businessman Gregg Yanchenko stepped forward with an offer to turn the building into office space while allowing some community use of the property to continue.

Excited with the offer, selectmen brought it to town meeting last spring where it was turned down by voters. Trying again in the first session of fall town meeting, the measure again failed to earn the needed two thirds of voters.

Throughout the drama of trying to dispose of the building, the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District had been part of the equation ever since it moved its administrative offices from the now empty Tarbell school building in West Groton to Prescott. There they remained until a budget squeeze forced district officials to consider moving the offices to their own property and saving on rent they now pay to the town to lease space at Prescott.

But when Yanchenko offered to buy the building, the renovated space appealed to the district which would likely have remained at Prescott if its sale had been approved, but with the denial of town meeting, members of the School Committee, who held a special meeting on Oct. 27, were forced to reconsider their options.

With one year left to its current lease at Prescott, committee chairman Allison Manugian asked members what their preferences were: to remain at Prescott indefinitely until its fate could be settled or move their offices elsewhere?

Stating her own preferences, Manugian suggested that she would be comfortable with extending the current lease by a year or two but not anything long term.

Fellow committee member John Giger observed that it would be difficult to remain at the rundown Prescott location if renovation efforts by the town, including upgraded wiring, took too long. “It could be a tough environment.”

That air of uncertainty prevented the School Committee from making any firm decisions at the Oct. 27 meeting.

“I don’t even know if we care if the building is renovated or not,” said committee member Leslie Lathrop suggesting that it would be cheaper for the district not to lease at Prescott.

Calling the current condition of their Prescott offices “embarrassing,” Manugian then suggested alternatives such as moving into the Boutwell School or unused modulars at the district’s main campus.

But both Lathrop and Giger expressed opposition to any division of the offices among several locations. That would be “detrimental to overall activities” said Giger.

“I agree with keeping the staff together,” added fellow School Committee member Jeffrey Kubick.

The School Committee needed more information if it was to make an informed decision, said Lathrop, wondering if the town wanted to be a landlord and if so, would it be willing to put money into the building for needed renovations.

Also in attendance at the meeting were members of the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Mark Haddad, who informed Manugian that selectmen had not yet held talks about what to do about the Prescott building in the wake of the town meeting vote.

The meeting ended with the decision about what to do about the district’s administrative offices still up in the air.

The district’s current lease at Prescott expires in August of 2015.

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