In towns as small as Lubec, the local high school is an essential community pillar, along with town government, churches and the local grocery store. The debate that raged through town in recent weeks, ending with a 269-230 vote Wednesday to close the school, must have stretched if not torn some of the fabric of this small community.
Lubec may be the canary in the coal mine for its peer communities. The vote to close the Lubec Consolidated High School was precipitated by some compelling numbers, chief among them that the high school had just 37 students, making it the smallest non-island high school in the state. Of course, the argument could be made that Lubec, the easternmost town in Maine, perched on a rocky cape jutting toward Canada, is very nearly an island. But as long as other options existed for educating the town’s high school students, which is not often the case for islanders, residents were wise to consider them.
The SAD 19 school board had voted earlier to recommend the closure in the face of the loss of $500,00 in state education subsidy.
And earlier this month, residents in the region that stretches from Calais and Robbinston to Eastport and Lubec voted by a 2-1 ratio to create an alternative organizational structure, or AOS, for local public education. Voting to create the AOS did not directly relate to the vote to close the Lubec school, but clearly, residents are seeing the declining enrollment trend in their region.
Long bus rides — or boat rides — to school are not ideal. But by creating a larger administrative unit, the residents of eastern Washington County have more options, and a larger portfolio of buildings and educators to be creative with in exploring those options.
The small enrollments that led to the school closure are part of the larger problem of population loss, a problem that radiates out through the local economy and social structure. And just as Lubec is confronting this problem, other rural towns in the state will soon confront it as well. One hundred years ago, Lubec’s population was 3,300; now, it is 1,600.
If towns like Lubec are to remain healthy, they must grow. The strong emotions that drove the debate on the school closure could be channeled into a cause that both sides can embrace — developing a sales pitch to encourage people to move to the area. Lubec and some of its neighboring communities have much to attract those who live in urban or even rural parts of the country. If a carefully conceived marketing campaign were produced highlighting the town’s beauty, relatively cheap real estate prices, low crime and friendly lifestyle and it was put in the right hands, a few dozen young families, younger retirees or part-time residents could be enticed to move there. Each would pump money through the economy, but of course the young families would be the ideal recruits.
The alternative to growing is not pretty. And Lubec residents are seeing that future with the closure of the school.