ORLAND, Maine — With few district residents present and with little discussion, members of the RSU 25 school board on Tuesday night voted unanimously to begin the formal process of closing the Orland Consolidated School.
The decision followed a discussion with Orland residents on Monday that outlined the economic reasons that forced the decision. Closing the school is part of a wider plan to offset the loss of about $890,000 in state subsidy in the coming school year. That plan includes reductions in teaching staff and cuts in equipment and supplies, which when combined with the school closure, total approximately $767,000.
“There are reductions in all aspects of our programs,” Superintendent Jim Boothby said Tuesday.
David Burgess, one of the Orland representatives on the school board, noted that he had graduated from the Orland school, as had his parents, and that the decision to close the building was a difficult one. He said he had worked on the ad hoc committee that studied the district’s facilities and had promised to fight against closing the Orland school without merit.
“There is merit in this action,” he said. “We need to fulfill our responsibilities to our communities. Our town clerk told me she [recently] sent out 183 tax liens. People are not able to pay higher taxes to keep this building open.”
He said he had to support closing the school with “huge regret.”
Tom Taylor-Lash, the other Orland representative and the only other board member to comment on the decision on Tuesday, agreed with Burgess, saying that he saw no recourse but to move forward with the closure in the best interests of both the RSU and the community of Orland.
The board’s decision sets in motion a process that includes a review of the school closure plan by Orland officials and the state’s commissioner of education. According to Boothby, the town will have 10 days to review and make comments to the commissioner, who will then have an additional 10 days to review and ask for clarification if needed. At that point, he said, the commissioner will issue a ruling on the amount of money that will be saved by closing the school.
Based on a state formula, Boothby has calculated that the district will save $324,000 by closing the Orland school and consolidating all of the school district’s programming at the school buildings in Bucksport. RSU 25 serves the communities of Bucksport, Orland, Prospect and Verona Island.
The commissioner’s ruling will set the stage for the final step in the process, a vote by the voters in Orland. The town could vote to keep the school building open, but residents would have to raise the total amount that would have been saved by closing the school in addition to the town’s share of the overall RSU budget.
Boothby estimated that the process would set the town vote early in May, about the time the district would be completing work on the budget for next year.
If Orland voters approve the closure plan, the building would be closed at the end of this school year. Although the process would return ownership of the building to the town, Boothby said that the district would not just walk away from the facility.
“We don’t just turn it over,” he said. “That would be very poor stewardship and a very poor partnership.”
Boothby said he already has begun discussions with Orland selectmen about how the district and the town can work together to maintain heat, electricity, security and other similar items at the building. Although the district will use some of the items in the building, such as desks and computers, he said other items still had value for the town — items such as the kitchen and gymnasium equipment.
“Those are the kinds of items we need to have conversations about with the selectmen,” he said.
Orland residents, though resigned to the loss of the school, recognized that the building still could have an important place in the community.
At Monday’s meeting, Bart Hutchins urged his fellow residents to begin thinking about how the building can be used once it is no longer used as a school.
“We have to face it; this building is going to close,” Hutchins said. “We need to look at this building and turn it into something special, a place that our kids can remember. We can make this the center of the community in a different way.”