BERLIN — Local voters will be asked to come out twice next month — once to weigh in on the budget proposed for the new Washington Central Unified Union School District and once to consider a series of documents designed to protect the town’s interests in Berlin Elementary School.
Scheduled on back-to- back days, the votes will be conducted in different ways, though both are linked to the state-ordered school district merger that is scheduled to launch July 1.
In a last-minute move it hopes will clarify the looming transfer of the elementary school property to the new five-town district, Berlin’s shorthanded school board voted Thursday to warn a special school district meeting on the eve of the Washington Central budget vote.
The meeting is set for 6 p.m. on June 24 and will give voters who attend a chance to approve three documents that involve the school property.
One of those documents is an indefinite option that gives the town the right to purchase the school property for $1 in the event it ever ceases to be used for the “direct delivery of education.” That arrangement is consistent with language contained in articles of agreement for the union school district and is viewed by board members as an extra precaution.
The proposed option does include a unique feature that reserves the right to sub-divide the 1.28-acre portion of the property leased to the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department and convey it to the town for $1, even if the neighboring school is still in use.
If there had been time the School Board would have subdivided the property in advance of the July 1 deadline because, while the fire station was technically built on school property, the service the department provides is underwritten by the town.
While town and school officials would prefer to see the fire station property sub-divided, they are also hedging their bets. Voters will be asked on at the special school district meeting to extend the fire department’s $1-a-year lease of the land through 2088.
Though there are still 20 years left on the original 50-year lease that was signed in 1989, the School Board is asking voters to exercise a clause that allows the lease to be extended up to a total of 99 years.
The third document that will be presented to voters is an easement deed that would preserve the town’s right to use the school property for a limited number of purposes in the future.
The school is the town’s emergency shelter and the easement deed would ensure that will remain the case. It is also where its Town Meeting Day elections, and most special elections and town and school district meetings – like the one on June 24 – are held. That would also continue to be the case, according to the proposed easement deed.
The town is also wants a perpetual, non-exclusive right to use the school’s fields, playgrounds and gymnasium, entrance road and parking area subject to the new district’s facilities use policy.
The documents are similar, but not identical to those Calais voters authorized their school board to execute during a special school district meeting there last month. Those documents have not yet been finalized.
The fire department is a Berlin-specific wrinkle, and town and school officials are eager to iron it out before July 1.
The special school district meeting will occur the night before voters the June 25 special election at which the budget for the new union district will be collectively decided by voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester. Voters in those towns will also be asked that day to consider proposed amendments to the articles of agreement for the new district. Those votes will be conducted by Australian ballot, as was the case with this week’s election of the new school board.