MONTICELLO, Maine — Tucked at the end of a narrow street off the center of town, it is easy to forget that the tiny Wellington School actually exists. But to the people who live in the southern Aroostook County village, it really is the heart of the community, a place where kids play and receive an education and where a number of civic events are held.
All of that could change if figures show it could be more cost-effective for the district to close the pre-kindergarten through third grade school. SAD 29 school board members earlier this week gave Superintendent Ray Freve the go-ahead to gather data to illustrate the financial impact of shuttering the school and busing students elsewhere.
SAD 29 educates about 1,300 students from the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello.
As district administrators look to be as fiscally responsible as possible, they have taken notice of the rumblings from taxpayers and board members that have grown louder over the years about declining enrollment at the school.
Enrollment has fluctuated over the past decade. There were 70 students in 1998 and 54 in 2005. In 2007, the number jumped to 64 pupils, but it has since gone back down to 56 this school year.
In 2005, school officials began talking about the future of the Wellington School after a study based on U.S. Census data showed that enrollment in SAD 29 was expected to decline significantly by 2017. The report showed there would be just 200 students at Houlton High School in 2017, half of the current population of the school.
Ultimately, no decision was made in 2005 about the future of the school.
On Monday evening, all but one of the board members acknowledged they felt it was time to advise Superintendent Freve to gather data on whether it would be cost-effective to close the school.
“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he told the board regarding a potential closure. “How would it impact staff? How much would it cost to transport those pupils to another school? Where would the kids be housed? Will it save money, and how much?”
Houlton Elementary School, which has 411 students at the prekindergarten through third-grade facility, is the only other elementary school in SAD 29.
If data show it would be fiscally advantageous to close the Monticello school, the proposal would first have to be approved the commissioner of the state Department of Education. A public hearing would then be held, and there would be a referendum to see if voters would approve the closure.
This is not the first time the district has considered closing a school. Voters agreed in 2000 to shutter the Littleton Elementary School after enrollment at the 50-year-old kindergarten through sixth-grade facility declined to 74 pupils. It also would have cost between $600,000 and $1 million to bring the school up to standards for existing building and life-safety codes. The community has since turned the structure into a thriving agricultural museum.
In 1999, SAD 29 financed a comprehensive plan and facility-space needs study. The $40,000, 110-page study was done by Baird Farm Studio of Mapleton and PDT Architects of Portland. One of the recommendations was that the Wellington School be closed within 10 years, based on enrollment projections.
Jennifer Johnston, who represents Monticello on the SAD 29 board, was the only member who voted Monday against authorizing Freve to gather the data. She made it clear she was “totally opposed” to closing the school.
She said that closing the building would mean longer bus rides for children from Monticello, and that they would have to ride the school bus with older children.
“The community surrounds this school,” she said. “There is lots of activity there, and lots of activity outside of school. The children take care of the school garden, and there are Halloween fests and other activities there. I think the kids will lose out if you close it. I don’t think that you would save enough money for our community to agree to closing it.”
Fred Grant, who represents Houlton on the board, said the group would not “be good stewards of the entire district” if they didn’t get financial figures related to Wellington’s closure.
There are approximately 10 employees at the Monticello school, and students and staff do a number of activities to cut costs and raise money to benefit projects it envisions, according to Wellington School officials. Nancy Wright, the principal at the school, also teaches at the facility. There is no secretary, so staffers take turns answering the phone. Students also have held fundraisers to buy equipment to start a ski club and to grow a school garden. The produce from that garden is eaten in the school cafeteria.
On Monday evening, the board ultimately voted 8-1 in favor of having Freve gather the data. If a decision to close the facility is made, it would not affect the 2011-12 school year.