CHERRYFIELD, Maine — Local officials have found out that keeping their elementary school going for another year will be a little easier than they thought last spring.
The town’s school expenses increased $401,000 this year when it decided, against the local school district’s wishes, to keep Cherryfield Elementary School open. Municipal officials were braced for the impact the multitown school district assessment would have on taxes but, about two weeks ago, got a big surprise.
An anonymous donor gave the town $200,000 to help defray the costs of keeping its elementary school open. The gift means that the increase in property taxes will be only half as big as officials feared it would be.
“That [donation] will pay the rest,” Mona West, the town’s administrative assistant, said Tuesday. “It’s a tremendous help to the town. It’s a struggle, but we want to keep our school open.”
West said she and other town officials have no idea who donated the money. All anyone at the town office knows, she said, is that the money arrived in the form of a check from the Boston Foundation.
David Trueblood, spokesman for the foundation, said Tuesday that the money came from a donor-advised fund, in which the benefactor decides how the money he or she provides to the foundation will be used. He said he does not know who the donor is, but presumes that the person specifically knew of the situation in Cherry-field and wanted to help out.
Trueblood said that many donors like to avoid getting public attention for the causes they support. Maintaining their privacy is important for the foundation, he said.
“We really try to respect the wishes of the donors,” Trueblood said.
The issue of keeping the school open, though it has been discussed for some time, came to a head last winter when the board of SAD 37, which includes Cherryfield and neighboring towns, voted to close elementary schools in Columbia Falls and Cherryfield as a cost-saving measure for the district. Declining state aid and pupil populations in western Washington County were among the reasons cited by the board for the recommended school closures.
Voters in Columbia Falls agreed to close their local school but Cherryfield residents decided not to close theirs. As a result, the school district assessed Cherryfield an additional $401,000 for keeping its school open — which is the amount the district said it would have saved had the school been shut down.
Art Tatangelo, a selectman, said Tuesday that the town already has raised the money to pay for the first half of the $401,000 assessment. The donation, he said, will be used to pay the second half of the assessment.
Voters decided last May more than 3-to-1 to keep their school open for a number of reasons, Tatangelo said. The community has pride in its school, which has been recognized by the state for its good quality, and it wants to help provide continuity for its pupils, he said.
Tatangelo said townspeople were prepared to pay all the costs of keeping the school open, which for the owner of a $100,000 home could have resulted in a $500 increase in property taxes. The $200,000 gift, he said, made people “ecstatic.”
As for what might happen for the 2010-2011 academic year, no one yet knows, according to Tatangelo. Maine’s new school organization laws likely will make it harder for a regional school unit to vote to close a school over a member town’s objections, he said. The SAD 37 board vote last winter to close the school passed 8-7, he said.
“It’s still up in the air,” Tatangelo said of the school’s long-term future.