Budget woes lead to talk of closing Monson school

Posted Feb. 03, 2009, at 11:34 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:02 a.m.

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — SAD 68 directors took the first steps Tuesday in addressing the possible closure of the Monson Elementary School by scheduling a public hearing for later this month.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal at a hearing at the Monson School 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Directors then plan to vote on the possible school closing at their March board meeting. If the board votes to close the school, Monson has the independent option to keep it open by paying the total annual operating cost.

“We are having a conversation that is long overdue,” SAD 68 Superintendent Ann Bridge told directors and two dozen audience members Tuesday. “It does appear to be moving forward very quickly, but that’s because it’s been a long time coming and it’s in anticipation of very, very significant financial issues coming at us from the state level.”

A draft cost analysis developed by Bridge indicated the school’s operational costs for 2007-2008 was $265,397, which is what Monson would be required to pay independently to keep the school open. The current local assessment was not immediately available Tuesday.

Douglas Kane of Monson, the father of two young children, spoke against the closing Tuesday. He said the quality of life and education his children receive are second to none in the state.

While she recognized those attributes, Bridge said the closing must be addressed because of the financial situation of the nation, state and communities. The district receives more than $6 million in state subsidy for its $10 million operational budget, she said. Last year, the first draft of the district’s budget came in $650,000 over the previous year’s budget, so the board made hard cuts that didn’t directly affect services to children, she said. This year, the district may be looking at a loss in subsidy of about $500,000. “It’s frightening,” Bridge said.

On any given day at the Monson pre-kindergarten through grade four school, there are about 35 pupils, some of whom are tuition pupils from Willimantic and Blanchard, according to Bridge. Five years from now, the school is expected to have a resident population of 16-17 pupils, she said.

Over the years, several ideas have been raised about making the Monson school into a kindergarten through grade eight school or a middle school, but those options were “cumbersome” and “expensive,” Bridge said.

“We have been making decisions that would appear at this point in favor of keeping the school open in Monson, but it’s been a balancing act between that decision and cutting everything else in terms of our capability to serve all of our children more adequately,” Bridge said. “That’s the difficult decision that the board is coming to in terms of where to place the very limited resources. It’s an onerous topic. It’s a difficult topic. We recognize the emotion that goes with that. We also recognize the educational considerations that are going to have to be made.”

The state has a very specific process to follow in closing a school, according to Bridge. She said the directors want to follow that process to the letter, so no one feels like they have been “bamboozled” by the discussions. The commissioner of the Department of Education must rule on the closing.

If the board does vote to close the school, it would be with a clear look at education and what can be done for all students for another year, Bridge said. At the same time, it would offer Monson residents one last opportunity to keep the local school open, she said.

The latter opportunity would be done through a referendum vote. Even if residents vote to keep the school open, the school closing would surface at the board level each subsequent year, according to Bridge.

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