SAD 37 residents have new plan to cut costs

Posted June 14, 2009, at 8:05 p.m.

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — A group of SAD 37 residents believe they have come up with a plan that will keep their schools open, rearrange the district and still save the district more than $1 million.

Earlier this year, in an effort to save money, SAD 37 directors voted to close the Columbia Falls School and the Cherryfield School.

Subsequently, Cherryfield voters opted to pay the $400,000 in additional costs to keep their school open for one more year, but the Columbia Falls School is slated for closure at the end of this school year with future pupils being sent to Addison and Harrington.

Many residents believe their communities will wither without a school, which they call the heart of the town.

“Who will move here?” Columbia Falls Town Clerk Muriel Smith asked recently. “We have five houses on our main street already up for sale. Nobody with a family is going to move here without a school. We are broken-hearted.”

The new proposal was created by Kathleen Worcester of Columbia Falls, who said this issue has pitted brother against brother and sister against sister.

“People are so distraught and upset,” she said Sunday.

Worcester’s plan would keep both Columbia Falls and Cherryfield schools open, close Harrington Elementary — the most expensive school in the district to maintain — and save an estimated $1.29 million.

Worcester is the first to admit that changes need to be made.

“The unfortunate truth is at least one school does need to be closed, since the entire district is obviously suffering in many ways due to the very low population at this time,” Worcester said.

She said her studies of the district revealed that the D.W. Merritt School was at only 47 percent capacity, Columbia Falls was at 55 percent, Milbridge at 57 percent, Harrington at 58 percent, and Cherryfield was using the most of its capacity at 67 percent.

“Clearly, this means that we, as a district, do indeed have more school space, or schools open, than we need at this time,” she said. But she is adamant that the wrong schools are slated for closure.

Worcester said she presented her proposal to the SAD 37 board members on May 11 and they appeared interested but were concerned about the proposal coming forward so late in the budget process. A new budget must be presented to voters by June 30.

The board has called a special meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 17, at Narraguagus High School in Harrington to discuss Worcester’s proposal.

Her plan would divide the district into two sections — east and west — and create school centers based on age. It would create two primary school centers and two middle schools, rather than having mixed populations of kindergarten through eighth grade in the same buildings.

As part of the proposal, Harrington Elementary School would be closed because of its large size, expense and distance from the outer regions of the district, she said.

“This plan saves more money than closing one, or even two schools, because our district will have two sets of kindergarten through eighth grades, instead of five sets,” Worcester said.

“Parents and children want their home and school to be as close as possible to one another. … Taxpayers want to save more money on the budget to prevent their taxes from continuing to grow out of control,” Worcester said. “Administrators and educators want classrooms that are neither half-full nor overcrowded.”

Worcester also said the state provides more funding for each classroom with a minimum of 17 students to one teacher.

She said the million dollars in savings would go a long way toward bettering the district children’s education, but added, “At the very least, we all know in our hearts that our ability to bring the communities together again, within our district, after so much fighting would be, well, priceless.”

Meanwhile, students and parents are preparing for what could be the last eighth-grade graduation tonight at Columbia Falls School.

“It’s going to be an emotional night,” resident Dale Smith said.

SAD 37 towns also are engaged in drawing up plans to comply with the state law requiring school administration consolidation. In referendum votes last year, the SAD 37 towns and Deblois voted to support a regional school unit plan, but voters in Jonesport, Beals and Beddington rejected it, sending the regional planning committee back to the drawing board.

Since then a committee has been considering the possibility of forming an alternative organizational structure, under which a regional board would assume administrative functions but towns control their own schools.

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