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Christ the King parish clears early hurdle to buy Rumford School

A subcommittee of the Concord School Board voted unanimously last night to support a proposal by Christ the King Parish to buy the former Rumford School, paving the way for the full board to give final approval of the sale early next month.

The capital facilities committee voted 4-0 to accept the proposal submitted by the parish earlier this month. In it, church officials offered $600,000, cash, for the 1.3-acre property on Thorndike Street.

“I’d love to see it (continue) to be used as a school,” said Clint Cogswell, one of the four school board members who voted in favor of the proposal last night.

The Concord School District put Rumford School and several others up for sale after it opened three new elementary schools this year.

The vote came on the eve of another major development in the sale of the former elementary schools.

This morning, the district is expected to select a buyer for the former Walker School located at the intersections of North Main, Bouton and Church streets. The two final bidders on that property are Seacoast businessman Bill Binnie, who would like to locate the WBIN radio and television group there, and Concord Group Insurance Co., which would like to move its headquarters to the property. A public auction is scheduled to take place this morning.

But last night’s meeting, which lasted about 30 minutes and featured a presentation by church officials to about 20 people, focused exclusively on the future of Rumford School.

The crowd included residents of the neighborhood who said they supported the parish’s plan to relocate St. John Regional School, now on South State Street, to Thorndike Street.

“I’m really excited to think that it’s still going to be a school,” said Don Derosier, 53, who said he’s lived across the street from Rumford School for about 15 years. After the meeting, he said he was pleased by the board’s vote.

“I was worried about the value of my house,” Derosier said.

Board members said they would have preferred a buyer that would not be tax-exempt the way a religious school is. However, they said last night, the advantages of the parish’s plans outweighed any such disappointment.

At previous meetings, residents had overwhelmingly said they wanted to see another school in the area, School Board President Kass Ardinger and others said. The parish’s plan would enable that.

Also, more than half of the 229 students at St. John Regional School are Concord residents. If the Catholic school weren’t there, the city would bear the cost of educating those children.

“There are 125 students who are in the parish schools instead of the public schools,” said board member Betty Hoadley.

The purchase of the Rumford School is a central part of a years-long consolidation that the parish is working on.

Christ the King Parish, which has about 9,000 parishioners, was formed last year by merging the three parishes into one.

The other two churches that make up the parish – St. Peter on North State Street and Sacred Heart Church on Pleasant Street – will eventually be sold. School board members last night said they felt better about keeping Rumford School off the tax rolls in part because they knew the property the church plans to sell could eventually lose its tax exemption.

St. John Regional School is celebrating its 125th year in Concord, and more than 3,000 students have graduated from Catholic schools in the area, including the schools at St. Peter and Sacred Heart, which have closed in the past few decades.

The fact the church could buy Rumford School was an answer to the Catholic community’s prayer, said William Norton, a real estate agent and Christ the King parishioner working on the project.

“This was built as a school,” Norton said. “Its highest and best use is as a school.”

“We feel we can continue to be good neighbors,” said Stephen Donohue, principal of St. John Regional School, which has students from pre-K through eighth grade.

St. John’s Regional School occupies two buildings and needs to both upgrade and expand.

If the parish buys the Rumford School property, officials would use it in a limited way immediately but would not operate it as a full-time school until the summer of 2014, officials say.

Renovations that need to happen before then include an overhaul of the electrical systems and an improvement to the building’s handicap accessibility.

Once students have left St. John Regional School for the former Rumford School, the vacated building will be renovated for office space, adult education religious classrooms and the St. Vincent de Paul Society food program.

By 2015, officials would like to build a gymnasium and parish center on the campus of St. John the Evangelist Church, done on a “pay-as-you-go basis,” funded by the sale of Sacred Heart and St. Peter’s churches and a capital campaign. St. John the Evangelist Church is likely to expand from 500 seats to 600.

Officials hope the changes will reposition the parish, which runs a $35,000 monthly deficit, to be stronger in the future.

Christ the King Parish was the only organization to offer to buy Rumford School. CATCH Neighborhood Housing, which had previously expressed an interest in converting the property into affordable housing, decided not to pursue its plans because it wouldn’t be in the city’s best interests for two nonprofits to compete against one another.

In its proposal, the parish had said the offer is valid until the close of business Nov. 21, 2013, but would like to close by Jan. 15.

The execution of the final purchase and sale agreement would be subject to the approval of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester, Peter Libasci.

The district is still working a transition for two other schools.

Conversations continue with city officials regarding the transfer of Dame School for a city community center, and plans for Eastman School stalled after neighborhood residents decried plans to sell the site to a company that runs assisted living facilities.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors )

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