Shirley residents weigh the future of their school

Posted April 07, 2009, at 11:32 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:15 p.m.

SHIRLEY, Maine — Leaning against his mother, Dean Lazore, 8, one of two pupils who attend the Shirley Elementary School, listened intently Tuesday as residents discussed the possibility of closing the school in July because of low enrollment.

With no incoming kindergarten pupils expected next year, the Shirley School Committee has a tough decision ahead. The committee will meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at the school, to decide whether to close the one-room facility or keep it open for the two pupils, hoping that more couples with young children will move into the small community.

“This town is at a crossroads right now,” Selectman David Thorp said Tuesday regarding the school issue. “It’s been like the stock market — sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down,” he said of the enrollment.

Union 60 Superintendent Heather Perry told the approximately 25 people who attended the hearing that the focus should be on what is best for the children. She didn’t dispute that the children received an excellent education at the school.

For various reasons, 11 of the town’s children are home-schooled and seven of them are in kindergarten through grade five, according to Perry. In addition, four children attend school elsewhere on superintendent’s agreements.

Estimated operating costs to keep the school open in 2009-10 would be about $279,317, according to Perry. To close the school and pay for tuition and transportation costs to send students to Greenville schools, would cost the town about $207,216. The current year budget is about $237,192.

“I couldn’t be more on the fence,” Jon Blackstone of Shirley, whose son attends the school, said about the two options. It is an academically “fantastic” school, he said. Blackstone said he couldn’t be any happier with his son’s education, yet he worried about the social aspect of a small school.

Since the school is grandfathered, it could not reopen unless the electrical and plumbing systems were upgraded among other improvements, according to Perry. The building is not meeting current codes, she said.

Thorp said town officials extended an invitation to Monson parents to enroll their children in the Shirley school since SAD 68 plans to close that town’s small school, but little interest has been expressed.

Dean Lazore’s mother, Michelle Lazore, said that the Shirley school was the “closest thing to home schooling without home schooling. It’s like a little diamond in the rough.”

Before the meeting, Lazore’s son said he hoped the school remained open. “It’s really fun there, you get to learn a lot of stuff,” the second-grade pupil said. What made the school special, Lazore said, “were all the wonderful things — the teachers and the activities.”

Because Shirley is a municipal school unit, the committee did not have to hold a public hearing but did 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 state 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 that petition must be signed by 10 percent of the registered voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election which would be 12 signatures, and must be given to the committee within 30 days of their vote to close the school. That would force a referendum vote in Shirley, she said.

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