Voters in Cherryfield and Columbia Falls faced the same question when they went to the polls Tuesday, but they came up with two answers.
Columbia Falls residents decided to allow the school district to close the elementary school in their town. Voters in Cherryfield opted to keep their school open, despite a hefty penalty that will accompany the decision.
In Columbia Falls, the vote was 129-102 in favor of closing the school. Cherryfield voters opposed closing the school by a wide margin, voting 224-64 to keep it open.
“I think people are still a little bit in shock,” Columbia Falls Selectman Alan Grant said Wednesday. “I don’t think a lot of people thought it would turn out that way.”
Grant said he thought it was the added tax burden and the stress that it would put on elderly residents and those on fixed incomes that convinced voters to close the school.
“The people have spoken,” he said, “but it’s not much of a choice to go into a voting booth and have to decide between more taxes or closing your grammar school.”
The board of directors of SAD 37 had voted to close the schools in the two towns, but voters had the final say on whether to keep them open. The district, however, imposed a penalty equal to the amount estimated to be saved by closing each school. The penalty in Columbia Falls would have been $359,000. In Cherryfield, it will be $401,990.
In Cherryfield, Selectman Art Tatangelo said the penalty will mean an increase in the local tax rate of about 5 to 5.5 mills, which will amount to about a 33 percent increase in property taxes. For a home valued at about $50,000, that will translate into a tax increase of about $250 to $260.
“That’s a pretty big penalty, especially in these times,” Tatangelo said Wednesday. “That makes the vote that much more powerful — that that many people came out and said they wanted to keep their school.”
Tatangelo said the issue had never been about money, but about one teacher per classroom. The district, he said, wanted to have one teacher per grade and had argued that the pupils would receive a better education.
“The parents said ‘no,’ the school is one of the top-rated schools in the state,” he said. “Their kids are getting a good education.”
The split vote has sent administrators scurrying to come up with a new plan for the coming year. SAD 37 Superintendent David Beal said the board had developed budgets based on the five schools in the district remaining open and one based on the two schools closing, leaving just three elementary schools open in the district.
“We developed budgets based on five open and three open,” Beal said. “We didn’t look at a split-split.”
Beal said he had spent part of the day Wednesday in meetings looking at the new configuration and trying to determine what it will mean in terms of staffing and how that will affect the district operating budget.
“We need to look at staff, ed techs, custodians, cooks; that all figures into it,” he said. “We’ll have to look at the reconfiguration and decide what’s in the best interest of the district.”
Beal said the board will need to work quickly in order to have the budget ready for the coming year, which begins July 1, but also will need to work carefully to make sure it is done right.
“I don’t know if we have time to do everything we need to,” he said, “but we need to take the time.”
The board already has held one budget hearing based on the five-school budget. They plan to review a four-school option at the next budget hearing, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 18, at Narraguagus High School.