Judge orders votes on closing schools

Posted May 04, 2009, at 8:48 p.m.

CHERRYFIELD, Maine — A Superior Court judge has ordered selectmen in Cherryfield and Columbia Falls to sign warrants for special town meetings to allow residents to decide whether to close the elementary schools in those towns.

The decision has disappointed and angered selectmen in both towns, who for more than a year have refused to sign warrants for the vote, despite repeated votes by the SAD 37 board to close the two schools.

SAD board members voted earlier this year to close the two schools. The procedure for closing a school requires that voters be given the opportunity to keep the school open. According to Superintendent David Beal, the SAD board had set a date of May 12 for the referendum vote and needed to have the warrants signed and posted by May 5.

“We had been in contact with the selectmen and gave them a date when we needed a response, and they responded that they were not ready to make a decision,” Beal said Monday. “The directors told me to do what I needed to move the question forward. I felt and the attorneys felt that the best way was to get a preliminary injunction.”

After a telephone hearing Monday, Justice Kevin Cuddy issued a preliminary injunction that ordered the selectmen to sign and post the warrant on or before May 5.

Selectmen in both towns said Monday that they probably will abide by the decision and sign the warrant, but they weren’t happy about it.

“I’m upset and disappointed that things have come to this point,” said Columbia Falls Selectman Vance Pineo. “I’m wondering — if the selectmen have to sign the warrant whether we want to or not, why the school district didn’t just post it themselves.”

Cherryfield Selectman Art Tatangelo also said he was disappointed that the judge addressed the concerns of the district, but not the issue the selectmen had raised.

The selectmen had argued that under current school law, the district would require a two-thirds vote of the board to close a school, Tatangelo said Monday. Neither of the two votes to close the schools passed by that margin, and just eight of the 15 directors signed the warrant to close the schools. That makes the district’s decision to close the schools illegal, he said.

“The decision didn’t address the issues the selectmen raised; we don’t have the right to not sign the warrant,” he said. “I’ve got an arrow in my heart over this; or maybe it’s a knife in my back.”

Both Pineo and Tatangelo noted that the elementary schools in their towns, although small, are among the top performing schools in the state. But district officials previously have said that the decision to close the schools was not based on educational issues, but economic ones.

The most recent vote to close the schools upset some residents in the towns when the board did not allow comments from the public, including students in the two schools that would be closed. Tatangelo said the closure decision had been made without public hearings. Beal, however, denied that and said there have been meetings in both towns and that the issue has been discussed for five or six years in board meetings.

“We’ve been talking about the need to close two or three schools for five or six years because of decreasing enrollment and increasing valuations,” he said. “The board felt at this point it had to take some action.”

Although the board voted to close the schools, the final decision will rest with the voters. If, however, residents vote to keep their schools open, they will face a significant penalty. The towns will be assessed the amount the district would have saved if the schools had closed in addition to their assessment for the SAD budget. In the case of Cherryfield, that amounts to a $401,990 penalty; for Columbia Falls, $359,000.

“The powers that be say they won’t close the school, that if the school is closed it will be the town that votes to close it,” Pineo said. “But they also say that if you keep the school open, we’ll financially strangle you.”

Given the current economic conditions, Pineo said he didn’t think he could ask taxpayers to pay what amounts to double what the town already pays as its share of the SAD 37 budget. Tatangelo, however, said he would recommend that Cherryfield voters vote to keep their school open, despite the added cost.

“I don’t know where we’ll find the money,” he said.

A public hearing on the question of closing the school was scheduled for Monday night in Columbia Falls. A public hearing has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cherryfield Elementary School.

Residents in both towns will vote on the issue on Tuesday, May 12.

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