CRANBERRY ISLES — Great Cranberry Island’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School has not operated as a school since 1999.
Still, voters have decided each year to keep Longfellow “open” as a school, assuming it was grandfathered for that use, should the need arise again. Since 1999, the building has hosted many community activities. And since 2010, voters have shown their confidence in the historic building and its place in the community by authorizing $100,000 per year for repairs and improvements.
But a recent report from the State Fire Marshal’s Office suggested that Longfellow should be shut down—both for school and community use—if substantial improvements are not made in a timely manner.
The town of Cranberry Isles comprises year-round inhabited Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry islands, along with Sutton, Baker and Bear islands. At the March 15 annual town meeting, 75 percent of voters agreed with the Cranberry Isles School Committee’s recommendation to borrow a lump sum up to $610,000, which includes about $450,000 to get the Longfellow work done. (About $95,00-$100,000 is estimated for exterior work at the Ashley Bryan School on neighboring Little Cranberry).
But not before a hot debate on the Longfellow question.
After all, children from both islands have attended Bryan since 2000, and the combined enrollment—10 students this year, with GCI children commuting by boat —is considered by many to be cost-efficient and socially and educationally beneficial.
But the consensus on Great Cranberry Island (GCI) has always been that Longfellow would one day be reactivated as a school.
Longfellow had two students in 1999. They graduated that year, and then there were no school-age children on GCI for a while. That situation changed in the mid-2000s, when one child grew to school age. It made sense to send her to Bryan to be with other children. Other children on GCI grew to school age, and they also went to Bryan (named after Islesford’s famous artist and children’s book author).
Today, the number of children who attend Bryan are pretty much equally from Great and Little Cranberry.
In the meantime, GCI residents have made good use of Longfellow, a historic gem dating back to 1905, for community activities such as the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation’s artist residency program, a library, gym and, formerly, the local Historical Society.
In 2010, the school committee determined Longfellow was basically sound but needed work. A GCI town meeting approved development of a master plan for repairs and upgrades, recognizing Longfellow’s importance for multipurpose use and for potential school use if GCI student numbers were to climb again, or if a child were unable to commute to Little Cranberry.
Ben Fulves, owner of Bar Harbor-based Heartwood Builders, was retained to draw up a survey, list of projects, schedule and budget. Projects addressed fire safety, the Americans with Disabilities Act, electrical and energy upgrades and repairs.
The projects, along with improvements at the Bryan school, were phased in to keep the budget manageable for taxpayers.
But at a public forum in January, the latest fire marshal’s inspection report in hand, the school committee recommended it would be more cost-efficient to borrow the necessary funds in a lump sum to get the rest of the Longfellow work done under one contract.
“The report spurred the need for a faster project, but we decided to ask for the loan primarily so the bigger aspects of the project could be integrated during construction for greater efficiency and ultimate responsibility,” said Cranberry Isles School Committee chairman Barbara Meyers. “For these reasons, one larger contracting company managing the remaining projects will be preferable.”
Town meeting discussion, said Meyers, made it clear it was “very important” to GCI residents, including summer residents, to ensure Longfellow’s potential for the future.
“For the Great Cranberry Island community, it was widely understood as being a death knell for the island if we didn’t maintain it as a school,” she said.
Of the 10 students attending Bryan this year, the majority are—at the moment—Little Cranberry residents. But the situation is complicated by the volatile populations of both islands. At one point this year, GCI students formed the majority.
“Families move on and families move off,” said Meyers. “That happens ever year. You never quite know.
Exploring another tack, she said, the committee plans to bring a new idea—alternating schools, perhaps every two or three years—to upcoming community discussions.