High school closure up to Lubec voters

Posted May 17, 2010, at 10:20 p.m.

LUBEC, Maine — The process of closing Lubec High School has begun, with a local referendum set for June 23.

“This is not a common situation,” David Connerty-Marin of the Maine Department of Education said Monday. He said that closing a high school is rare and that having a single municipality school district, such as SAD 19, is also uncommon.

“We are advising them through the process,” Connerty-Marin said.

He recalled the closure of the Allagash Consolidated School’s grades nine through 12 program in 1990 and before that the closure of Porter High School in 1967.

The Lubec School Board voted 4-1 on April 5 to close the school and set the public referendum after the district lost approximately $579,000 in state funding. Chairman Russell Wright was the only member voting against the closure.

The school serves 37 students, making it the smallest mainland high school in Maine, Connerty-Marin said.

Only Islesboro Central School’s high school is smaller.

Connerty-Marin said the school board could simply have closed the school with its vote without putting it to a public vote at all. The school board elected to do so at its last meeting without explaining why.

At that April meeting, Superintendent Brian Carpenter estimated that between $15,441 and $129,429 could be saved by closing the school, depending on where parents elect to send students — Shead High School in Eastport, Machias Memorial High School or Washington Academy in East Machias.

Carpenter said four teachers, a guidance counselor, a guidance secretary and a high school secretary would be laid off. In addition, more than $173,000 in costs would be shifted from the high school to the elementary school.

Some residents want the school to remain open, saying it is a fine school with a good reputation and that busing students 30 miles or more each way to a different high school wouldn’t save the district money. A Facebook page, We Support Lubec High School, has 324 fans.

But with 60 percent of Lubec’s residents over the age of 65 and on fixed incomes, some are just as ready to bolt and lock the doors. They are worried that keeping a small school of just 37 students open will increase their tax bills.

It is key that the state’s valuation of the town, which in turn sets the amount of school funding Lubec receives, is based on coastal property values. “Land rich, jobs poor,” is the mantra around town.

“The state says we have 96 miles of prime waterfront,” Town Clerk Betty Case. “But much of it is owned by the state or under conservation protection. We have no industry here.” The lack of jobs has driven families from the area, leaving a small school population.

Meanwhile, a process has been launched to unseat Russell Wright as chairman of the Lubec school board.

Case said the petition to force Wright out was presented to the selectmen at their meeting last Thursday and they accepted it, taking neither a stand for or against the move. That petition had 87 signatures, Case said.

The board’s acceptance triggered a second petition, one that can only be signed by registered Lubec voters and the petition itself is kept under lock and key at the town office. That petition will be active until 4 p.m. June 16.

Case said that if at least 174 Lubec voters sign the petition, the question of Wright’s removal will go to a public referendum vote where it will need 50 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election to pass.

As of Monday, the petition had a single signature.

A third effort involving reinventing Lubec High School is also gaining attention.

Richard Hoyt, a local retired teacher with more than 36 years experience, is seeking to install an Experiential Learning School program at Lubec High School. He said he will be holding a public meeting within two weeks to explain the program details to residents.

Hoyt said Monday that the Experiential Learning School program is exciting and is being used by a network of schools across the country. The approach promotes rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based instruction; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship.

At www.ELSchools.org, the program is more fully explained, including providing examples of results such as the 45 percent of inner-city students at one Springfield, Mass., ELS high school who earned full-tuition scholarships to college, and the success of King Middle School in Portland.

“ELS is keeping kids in school and really showing results,” he said.

Assisting Hoyt is Katherine Cassidy of Machias.

“Within two to five years, Lubec High School could be a destination high school,” Cassidy said Monday. “As we have seen in other areas, you don’t have to be a private school to build a budget on tuition.”

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