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Frenchville School Fire Puts Focus On Aging School Infrastructure In Maine, As Donations Help Rebuild

Frenchville fire.jpg
Courtesy of Patience Bernier
via Bangor Daily News
Firefighters train hoses on flames leaping from the roof of the Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville.

When a fire broke out last week at Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville, it displaced hundreds of students to other school spaces in the area. It also highlights a significant problem with Maine's aging school infrastructure.

Dr. Levesque Elementary School has been touted for years for its academic excellence. In 2018, it was declared a National Blue Ribbon School. But early last week, a fire, likely caused by electrical problems, destroyed nearly the entire building, which did not have a sprinkler system.

Principal Cheryl Hallowell says in just a few short days, administrators were forced to relocate hundreds of students split between a nearby middle and high school, the St. John Valley Technology Center, and a modular classroom.

"There are many inconveniences with this. But it will work in the short-term. And we do know the short-term is going to be, probably, at least two years," Hallowell says. "We know we have to have a plan, but no plan is going to happen that quickly."

The Frenchville fire has also put a focus on the generally aging state of school infrastructure in Maine. Maine DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux says the majority of the state's school buildings were built more than 70 years ago. And, as first reported by the St. John Valley Times, a recent state survey of local administrators found that only a little over half had buildings equipped with sprinkler systems.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Richard McCarthy says those numbers appear to be improving. Since 2010, he says his office has issued 138 permits to add sprinkler systems to new or existing schools. And he says last week illustrated the value of those sprinklers, as a fire also broke out at a school in Westbrook but was extinguished by its sprinkler system.

"Where the kids will be back in school this school year. That's the illustration of what sprinklers do, where the building is still there. Where in Frenchville, the building is not," McCarthy says.

The state DOE says it is working to improve school infrastructure by raising the cap on major capital school construction projects, and by allocating more than $45 million for the state's School Revolving Renovation Fund this year. And the Fire Marshall's office says that while upgrades can be expensive, schools can slowly make improvements to their fire prevention systems over time to make them more affordable.

In Frenchville, meanwhile donations from businesses and online fundraisers have flooded in to assist students and staff who have been upended by the fire.

The state has also offered technical assistance and architects and has reached out to other districts to donate materials including desks and musical instruments. And Principal Cheryl Hallowell says surrounding districts have loaned their custodial staff to empty out and paint classrooms for teachers to move into.

"There's no way -- without that support, I don't know what we'd do," she says. "I really don't. But you know what? We've never had a moment to consider what we'd do if it was just us. Because from day one -- moment one -- people were reaching out immediately."

School is set to begin in the district on September 9th. And Hallowell says she expects the new classrooms will be ready for students. And district officials say they will conduct an electric audit of the building to ensure a similar fire doesn't occur.