Down East’s SAD 37 board rejects plan to close school

Posted Feb. 25, 2010, at 10:11 p.m.

HARRINGTON, Maine — Faced with losing almost $1 million in state school funding, the SAD 37 board of directors on Wednesday night rejected a plan to close another school, voting against the recommendation of its own Long Range Planning Committee.

Last year, the Columbia Falls Elementary School was closed by public vote as a cost-saving measure. Cherryfield voters had opted to keep their school open.

The planning committee had made no recommendation about which school to close, so the board was not voting on a specific school Wednesday night.

SAD 37 consists of Columbia, Columbia Falls, Addison, Harrington, Milbridge and Cherryfield.

Superintendent David Beal said Thursday that the Long Range Planning Committee consisted of 21 people, including municipal leaders, community members and board members.

“They were quite familiar with the budget and the issues,” Beal said.

Still, he said, the full board did not agree with the closure recommendation. “We missed a supermajority by about 3 percent,” Beal said.

The district now will have to deal with losing nearly $1 million in state funding over last year’s subsidy, he added.

“We will never be able to make up a million dollars,” Beal said. “Some of this will have to shift to the taxpayers.”

Beal said it would be an extraordinary balancing act to keep the quality of SAD 37’s programming and staff in place while absorbing the loss of revenue.

This issue has come up just as a new national ranking named four SAD 37 elementary schools as best in the state.

The rankings, done by Schooldigger.com, which examines schools across the country, were based on the Maine Educational Assessment scores for 2008-2009. The schools coming in first place with the highest test scores were Harrington Elementary School, grade three, and tying for first place in grade four were Cherryfield, Milbridge and Columbia Falls elementary schools.

“We have a tremendous staff and they understand the difficult situation we are in,” Beal said. “We don’t want to harm the existing program. We want to maintain such high quality.”

Beal said the voters in his area have supported the schools generously in the past. “They are very proud of their schools,” he said.

But it took three attempts last year to get the $8.5 million budget passed. Beal expects this year’s budget to be even more difficult.

“I had planned on coming in with flat funding,” he said. “But there is no way that can happen. Our next step is to digest last night’s vote and begin to look at ways to reduce spending.”

Beal will develop a preliminary budget and hold three public budget meetings to adopt the final plan.

Those meetings tentatively have been set for 7 p.m. Wednesdays, April 7 and 14, and May 5, at Narraguagus High School.

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