SHIRLEY, Maine — The Shirley Elementary School may be closed before its 175th anniversary in 2010.
With only two children attending the one-room schoolhouse this year and no incoming kindergarten pupils anticipated next year, the school committee is moving ahead with plans to close the landmark in this small Piscataquis County community on July 1.
A public hearing on the matter will be held at 7 p.m. April 7 at the town hall. Depending on the outcome of the hearing, the school panel is expected to vote on the closing at a meeting tentatively set for April 15.
“The closing of the Shirley school is not something that we — the Shirley School Committee and myself — necessarily want to do, but it is something that may need to be done based upon the best interest of the kids and their education,” Union 60 Superintendent Heather Perry said Tuesday.
Closing the Shirley school, founded in 1835, has been an on-again, off-again issue over the years. In the 1980s, Shirley was the first town in the state to dissolve a school district when district officials pushed to close the school.
Now serving kindergarten through grade five, the school has had enrollments as high as 50 and as low as today’s two. The enrollment decline reflects the fact that fewer younger families are settling in this community south of Greenville because there are no industries and few local jobs.
The Shirley school and the Rockwood Elementary School in Rockwood Township, also a K-5 school, are the last one-room schoolhouses left on the mainland. The state plans to close the Rockwood school in July unless the community has an influx of school-age children before then. Only two pupils attend that school this year.
Even though both schools have more than one room, the state classifies schools with multilevel grades and one teacher as one-room schools. A third one-room school, the Caratunk School, permanently closed in 2003. Seven one-room schools remain on coastal islands.
The rationale for closing the Shirley school before next fall is that two pupils left school in early fall and winter to become home-schooled, Perry said. That left two pupils, and one of those is a Greenville resident. In addition, she said no incoming kindergarten pupils are expected in the fall.
If the school is closed, Shirley pupils will have a choice of schools, but the town will pay for transportation to only one. Most of the town’s middle and high school pupils attend Greenville schools.
Because Shirley is a municipal school unit, the committee does not have to hold a public hearing but is doing so out of courtesy to the town, according to Perry.
Unlike school districts that must hold referendums for similar closings, the school committee decides the fate of the school before an educational plan is submitted to the Department of Education for approval. If the committee does vote to close the school, residents can petition the committee for a referendum vote. Perry said a petition must be signed by 10 percent of the registered voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election and must be given to the committee within 30 days of its vote to close the school.
Perry and the school committee have pegged the savings from the closing at $96,782. That amount, however, doesn’t account for two Shirley pupils who attend Greenville Elementary School on a superintendent’s agreement because of special education needs, she said. If the school were to close, Shirley would have to pay the tuition for those two children and also would have to account for about $9,000 in unemployment costs associated with the first year of the closing, according to Perry. Those costs are for the teacher and the aide who work at the school. That would leave the actual savings for the first year at about $40,551, Perry said.