WALLAGRASS, Maine — For six years 11-year-old Jessy Devoe has known only the small Wallagrass Elementary School.
Even though the sixth grader will be moving on to the larger Fort Kent Middle School next fall, she is bothered by the possibility that her younger friends and neighbors won’t be able to attend the small school in the future.
Faced with a looming $345,000 budget shortfall, administrators and board members of AOS 95 — the alternative organizational structure recently formed when SADs 27 and 10 combined — are looking hard at closing the Wallagrass school, one of four elementary schools districtwide.
“It’s really sad,” Devoe said Thursday morning before the morning class bell rang. “I think small schools are better [and] bigger ones scare me.”
Her classmate Jessyca Rioux agreed.
“I like the smaller school a lot,” Rioux said. “There are a lot of nice people here and not as many bullies as in a bigger school.”
No one from the district superintendent to the school board chairman is discounting that good learning goes on at Wallagrass Elementary School.
But that fact has come hard up against the realities of shrinking enrollments, declining state revenues and increasing expenses.
“The lack of state funding hurts,” said School Board Chairman James O’Malley of Fort Kent. “We’ve done the best we could with what we’ve had to work with, but now it’s to the point where additional cuts are needed and it’s going to be painful.”
AOS 95 is certainly not alone in facing a fiscal crisis.
At the state level, general purpose aid to education has dropped in each of the last four budget cycles from $978 million in 2007-2008 to a projected $877 million for 2011-2012.
Beginning with the 2008-2009 budget, federal stimulus funds helped mitigate the state reductions, but those funds ran out last year and now districts around the state are being forced to make some hard financial decisions.
This past summer voters in Lubec approved the closure of Lubec Consolidated High School in the wake of a $600,000 state subsidy cut.
Similar losses of state dollars in RSU 19 prompted the closure of the Palmyra Consolidated School this past summer.
While the drop in state funding has been steady the last several years, the influx of federal stimulus dollars has helped ease that pain, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
“We don’t know what the Legislature will do next year,” Connerty-Marin said this week. “But even if they flat fund education, that and the loss of federal dollars means a big drop in state subsidies.”
In AOS 95 the loss of state funding is expected to total $345,000 for the coming budget year. This follows the loss of more than $200,000 for the current year after the district was able to use $184,000 in federal stimulus funds to offset losses.
On top of the loss of state funds, the district is looking at upcoming contract negotiations for its teachers, Teamster members, ed-techs, unclassified employees and administrators.
“The board has really been wrestling with this issue,” Dr. Patrick O’Neill, AOS 95 superintendent, said. “Board members have had some serious discussions, and some of those discussions included closing the Wallagrass school.”
At the board’s annual fall retreat on Sept. 25, the members present decided to put the matter to a formal board vote at the regular monthly meeting Thursday, Oct. 14, at Fort Kent Community High School. The meeting, which will be open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the school gymnasium.
The board comprises 13 members representing Fort Kent, St. John Plantation, St. Francis, Allagash, New Canada, Wallagrass, Eagle Lake and Winterville.
The two board members who represent the Wallagrass area did not attend the retreat.
The two members, Kelly O’Leary of Wallagrass and Joel Bossie of New Canada, declined to comment on the issue Wednesday, saying they lacked sufficient information to do so.
Should the board vote on Oct. 14 to close the school and the state approves the move, the action could generate savings between $250,000 and $359,000.
The amount of savings depends on the status of the school post-closure, Lucy Tabor, AOS 95 chief financial officer, said.
“If the building is mothballed but has just the basic maintenance that would be a savings of $250,000,” Tabor said.
The greater savings would come if ownership of the building was transferred entirely to a different entity.
“The board decided at the retreat this issue needed to be brought forward sooner rather than later,” O’Neill said. “Make no mistake, we know this is a fine school, and we don’t want to close any schools.”
With its 98 students, the Wallagrass school does not have the lowest enrollment of the district’s four elementary schools, nor does it have any academic shortcomings, O’Neill stressed.
Rather, the superintendent said the board looked at which closure would have the least effect on students when considering such logistics as transportation. The other three elementary schools are located in St. Francis, Fort Kent and Eagle Lake.
The St. Francis school serves only 53 students, but some of them travel from Allagash.
The district’s smallest school in St. Francis, with an enrollment of 53 students, was not considered for closure, O’Neill said, due to some of that student body coming from Allagash.
“Allagash just joined SAD 27 in the new AOS, and the board knows the St. Francis school is the educational lifeline to Allagash,” the superintendent said.
Transporting students from Allagash to Fort Kent would also mean a one-way bus ride of up to 40 miles.
Should the Wallagrass school close, he said, the students would be relocated to either the Fort Kent or Eagle Lake facilities.
On the academic side, O’Neill said the Wallagrass school is known for consistently turning out high test scores.
“This is a high-performing school,” the superintendent said. “We hope to keep as much of that initiative intact as possible and pass it on throughout the district.”
Even if the school does ultimately close, O’Malley said it can’t happen soon enough to help for the coming budget.
“I wish the savings would hit our books fast enough to help us,” he said. “We are going to go over a cliff, and we need to close that budgetary gap before the Wallagrass savings [can] help us … we need to come up with some short-term solutions.”
Among the suggestions for dealing with the $350,000 gap in the short term are defunding co-curricular activities such as sports and student clubs by $200,000, taking $50,000 from the adult education program, increasing student fees and charging for student parking on school grounds.
“My hope is we can adopt some of these measures for the short term, and should those savings from closing Wallagrass materialize we can refund those programs,” O’Malley said.
The board chairman said it was unfortunate the two members representing the Wallagrass area were not present at the retreat, adding, “The retreat is open to all board members [and] even the public is invited.”
O’Malley did point out that any one of the suggested cuts — including the Wallagrass school closure — could be “shot down” by the board at next Thursday’s meeting.
“You can imagine what these cuts will do to our programs,” he said. “Each of them has merit, but it comes down to making a decision, and if anyone thinks there is more low hanging fruit out there we have not looked at, we would love to hear it.”
Virtually every suggested cut involves a program or activity that benefits students, O’Malley said.
“It breaks my heart to see these cuts,” he said. “But we can’t go to the taxpayers and say, ‘Can you come up with the additional funds?’ We just can’t do it.”
Throughout the budget discussions, O’Neill said, the board was aware of the potential effects on students.
“The board is very concerned about student education,” he said. “But these are unprecedented times and a lot of what has been taken for granted is in jeopardy financially.”
In dealing with last year’s budget gap of more than $200,000, the board was forced into laying off seven employees, and O’Neill did not discount the possibility of more layoffs to deal with future shortfalls.
“The next several years are going to be very dicey,” he said. “Unfortunately at times like this, education becomes a political punching bag.”
Should declines in enrollment and funding continue around the state, Connerty-Marin said more small towns may see their schools closing.
“There has definitely been an increase in the number of small schools closing around Maine,” he said. “There are still a number of very small schools in this state, and they are all looking at a decrease of educational dollars.”
Back in Wallagrass on Thursday where bright posters lined the walls and students talked excitedly on their way to another day of classes, the political and financial wranglings of their elders were not lost on the students.
Alex Paradis, 11, even offered a budgetary argument against closing his school.
“With smaller schools we can go on more field trips and just use one bus,” he said. “With larger classes you need more buses and that means more money for gas.”
In addition, Paradis said he likes the small teacher-to-student ratio.
“We get a lot of one-on-one time with our teachers,” he said.
“It’s really sad,” Greyden Pelletier, 11, said. “I’d tell the board ‘Don’t close down this school — it’s one of the best.’”
PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE BANGOR DAILY NEWS BY JULIA BAYLY
Laurie Lozier, grade six teacher at Wallagrass Elementary School, works with students Jessy Devoe (left) and Jessyca Rioux. Both girls say they like the one-on-one attention they get in their small classrooms at the school and fear its closure. Subsequent relocation of students to elementary schools in Fort Kent or Eagle Lake could spell the end of a low student-teacher ratio.