ST. GEORGE, Maine — For months this small peninsula town has discussed its anger about the six-town school board forcing its eighth graders out of the local school and into a combined eighth-ninth grade school in Thomaston. At its Tuesday night town meeting, the town “put its money where its mouth is” and allocated $50,000 in an effort to keep its eighth graders in town next year.
The motion came after talks with board members of Regional School Unit 13, which serves Rockland, Owls Head, Thomaston, South Thomaston, St. George and Cushing. The RSU decided to move all six member towns’ eighth and ninth graders to Thomaston to help ease the transition into high school and help ninth graders succeed academically. St. George community members asked how much money the district would save by moving the town’s students. The answer they got was about $50,000, which pays one teacher’s salary and benefits.
Ideally, the money would offset the district’s savings and allow the town to keep its eighth graders in the St. George School, but this won’t necessarily happen. The school board has already voted down similar measures.
Josh McPhail, a teacher at the St. George School, proposed the motion that also included measures to create a local school committee to investigate and plot “a withdrawal [from the RSU] plan to be presented to the voters of St. George.”
“If we don’t do this, we can forget about any eighth grade being here. The RSU won’t pay for it,” McPhail said at the meeting. “We’re making a statement here: We are willing to pay. If we want our 8th grade here, we need to support this motion.”
The only vocal opponent to the motion was Scott Vaitones, business manager for the RSU.
“The critical issue is Maine has one of the highest flunk-out rates for ninth graders in the United States. St. George is not immune to that,” Vaitones said. “[The move] is to create a model of success.”
“You’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid. You work for [superintendent] Lucarelli,” said St. George selectboard chairman Bill Reinhardt. “The problem isn’t the eighth grade. It’s a ninth grade problem.”
Townspeople argue that taking out the eighth graders will cripple the band and sports programs in the 200-student St. George School.
Some voters were concerned that this would be the first of many $50,000 allocations to the district.
Ultimately, the residents attending Tuesday’s meeting voted to create the new St. George school board and to allocate $50,000 to keeping the eighth graders in town. About six of the more than 200 people attending the meeting voted against the motion.
It’s unclear what will happen next, but RSU 13 board member Josiah Wilson indicated that the town likely will consult with its lawyer before it takes any other actions.
For the town’s Education Options Committee chairman Terry Driscoll, the vote to support the eighth graders was a giant step for the town. His committee’s recommendations are what spurred the school-related motions made at the town meeting.
“We have the chance for us to go forward with the work we’ve been doing. The issues here are more than the eighth grade. It’s philosophy and governance. The eighth grade is a case study,” Driscoll said after the Tuesday meeting. “We want to work out governance issues and give the town a voice.”
Driscoll said St. George’s goal is to work out problems with the district, “not withdraw” from the district, but the motion passed Tuesday does say that the new town school board will plan for a withdrawal.
RSU 13 superintendent Judith Lucarelli said the board will address the St. George vote. The next meeting of the district’s school board is April 7.