Orland residents resigned to community school closure

Posted March 15, 2011, at 10:26 p.m.
Last modified March 16, 2011, at 3:39 p.m.

ORLAND, Maine — At the end of a sometimes emotional two-hour meeting Monday night, residents were still upset, and some were heartbroken, but most were resigned to the harsh fact that their community school will close at the end of this school year.

RSU 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby planned to recommend to the school board at its meeting Tuesday night, March 15, that the Orland Consolidated School be closed as part of the district’s effort to offset the loss of $890,000 in state subsidy next year. Closing the school will centralize all of the school district’s programs in the school buildings in Bucksport.

“This is the economic reality,” he said. “And I’m not just thinking about this year. We know we’re going to lose $300,000 next year, and we’re not going to get any more money from the state.”

Residents raised numerous concerns about the plan, ranging from the condition and safety of the Bucksport schools to the academic levels in those schools. Much of the concern, however, focused on the loss of the small, community school.

Tammie Coombs told board members she resented that they were being forced to do “the big school thing.”

“I hate that you’re taking away our small school; it’s the heart of our community. And I resent you guys for that,” she said. “I understand it. It all comes down to money. I know it’s going to happen whether we want it to or not,  if not this year, then the next. I just want to say, as a parent, this sucks.”

Resident Bob Harriman added that there was a sense that the situation was pitting Orland against Bucksport and that Orland, as it has in the past, was coming out on the short end. He suggested the board needed to consider more than the financial part of the issue.

“You’re going to rip the heart right out of the community,” he said. “There’s more than dollars and cents to this.”

Board member David Burgess of Orland said the board did not view the issue as pitting one town against another. He noted that, although the board members represented individual towns, they did not vote along town lines and they all struggled with the issue of closing a school.

“This is not an easy choice for us,” he said. “And it’s not Bucksport versus Orland, or Verona versus Prospect. We’re trying to do the best we can do for all our children. In terms of Bucksport taking over — that hasn’t been the case. That’s not the way this board thinks.”

Residents also focused on the plan to use the Jewett School building in Bucksport to house several grades as the district reconfigures its programming. According to Boothby, the plan now is to move the adult education program to the high school and to locate the early kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade at the Jewett School building.

One parent, whose child attended Head Start classes in the building, said her son had been ill much of the time he was there and doctors eventually identified the problem as a reaction to mold. She raised concerns that there was a mold problem at the Jewett School. Although the woman said she had discussed the issue with Head Start teachers, Boothby said he would be willing to talk with the teachers and parents about the issue, but said that no concerns about air quality in the building had been raised with him.

Parents also were concerned about their children not fitting in and not being welcomed to the larger school. Boothby said the building administrators would be working with parents and children to give them a chance to become familiar with the school and to ensure an easy transition.

One parent, Jessica Rollerson, said that although she was “heartbroken” about the school closure, she had been talking with and e-mailing teachers and administrators in Bucksport to try to get a sense of what she and her child were getting into.

“I’ve been getting a lot of good information from Bucksport,” Rollerson said. “And every time I hear from the folks in Bucksport, the better I feel about my son going there. I don’t think they realized we needed that.”

She urged more parents to contact the school administrators and teachers, a suggestion that was echoed by Tom Taylor-Lash, one of the Orland representatives on the board. Taylor-Lash said the atmosphere and the successes at the Orland school were not the results of the building but of the parents’ involvement in their children’s education. That, he said, needs to continue in Bucksport.

“Parents have been very much involved here,” he said. “You’re going to have to continue that wherever they go. You need to be engaged there with your children.”

If the school board approves the recommendation to close the school — by the required two-thirds majority — the closure plan would be sent to the state’s education commissioner for approval. If the commission approves it, Orland voters would have the final say in a straight, yes or no vote. The earliest that could happen would be May, Boothby said.

If they approve it, the closure would move ahead. If they reject the closure, under the RSU agreement, the town would have to raise the amount that would have been saved if the school was closed in addition to their annual RSU assessment. According to Boothby, using a state formula, the additional cost to keep the school open would be $324,000 to be raised by Orland taxpayers. Based on talks with the selectmen, he estimated that would add about  $168 per $100,000 of valuation to an individual property tax bill.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about the Jewett School in Bucksport. That building is owned by RSU 25, not Bucksport. It was transferred to the new district, along with other school buildings from Bucksport and Orland when the RSU was created.

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