Funding cuts may force closure of Orland school

Pam Haseltine discusses unusual sea life with her fourth-graders during class at Orland Consolidated School Thursday afternoon, March 3, 2011. RSU 24 is considering closing the school despite recent upgrades to the school's facilities.
Pam Haseltine discusses unusual sea life with her fourth-graders during class at Orland Consolidated School Thursday afternoon, March 3, 2011. RSU 24 is considering closing the school despite recent upgrades to the school's facilities.
Posted March 03, 2011, at 8:50 p.m.
The Orland Consolidated School.
The Orland Consolidated School.

ORLAND, Maine — The RSU 25 school board is considering closing the Orland Consolidated School as part of an effort to offset an expected loss of almost $900,000 in state school subsidy in the coming year.

Although discussion is still in the early stages, Superintendent Jim Boothby said Thursday that the board has begun looking at the possibility of centralizing programming in the Bucksport school buildings and closing the building in Orland at the end of this school year.

He estimated that closing the school could save the district more than $300,000.

The discussion began after the district, which includes the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Prospect and Verona Island, learned that it would receive $890,000 less in state general purpose aid for education for the coming school year. To balance that loss of revenues and still maintain existing programs and services, the RSU would have to increase substantially the assessment to member towns, Boothby said.

The school committee could not support that, Boothby said, and instructed him to find ways to cut the budget.

“We need to have a budget reduction,” he said. “We’re now having discussions about where those funds are going to come from.”

The two largest items in the school budget are personnel and facilities, he said. Closing the Orland school is a big cost-saving item, but it is not the only item on the chopping block.

“We’re looking at everything,’’ Boothby said. “Everything in the organization is being examined.’’

In an earlier interview, Boothby said there “certainly will be personnel cut,’’ and closing the Orland school would result in savings from both operations and staff cuts. Some of the Orland staff still would be retained to maintain programs at other schools, he said.

An ad hoc facilities committee studied all the district’s facilities last fall and, according to Boothby, determined the district had the capacity to relocate programs and eliminate a building. That committee recommended against closing the Orland school if at all possible, but Boothby noted the recommendation came before the district received the state funding figures.

If the building is closed, it would be offered to the town of Orland, Boothby said.

Orland Selectman Ed Rankin said he has talked with Boothby, but that the selectmen have not discussed the issue as a board yet. They were scheduled to meet Thursday night.

“There are still some variables,” Rankin said. “We still haven’t had a chance to discuss what to do with all of this.”

If it happens, Rankin said he’d like to form a town committee to study options for the building.

There are some in town who are opposed to closing the school, but Rankin said most residents he has spoken with would support the closing based on the estimated savings. Townspeople could vote to keep it open, he said, but the town would have to raise the estimated amount of savings in addition to its annual assessment for the RSU budget.

Some residents, however, already have raised objections and argued that the town has maintained the school building well and made significant investments to improve it, including installing a new boiler and windows and completely renovating all 16 classrooms, before joining the RSU just over two years ago.

Orland resident Jean Sargent, who has worked as secretary at the school for 28 years, argued that the school is in better shape than some of the Bucksport school buildings that taxpayers will have to pay to improve.

“I would rather see my tax dollars go toward the well-maintained, suitable, healthy and student-oriented Orland school building,” she wrote in a commentary to local newspapers.

The small-school atmosphere has provided a better learning environment for Orland students, she added.

“We’ve been able to give students advantages in learning that are not available to them in a bigger school,” she said Wednesday.

Boothby stressed that the process was being driven strictly by the district’s economic situation.

“Economics are driving us,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the quality of a school or the product of a school. It’s an economic discussion.”

The full board is expected to discuss the proposed school closing and the possible program configurations at its next meeting on March 15.

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