Orland selectmen planning for school closure

Posted March 26, 2011, at 8:13 a.m.

ORLAND, Maine — Although a formal town vote on whether to keep the Orland Consolidated School open is still more than a month away, selectmen are moving forward with plans to maintain the building in the event it is closed.

On Thursday, the selectmen met with RSU 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby to hammer out some details of transferring the school building from the district to the town.

The RSU 25 school board on March 15 voted unanimously to close the school in July and relocate all of the district’s programs to the school buildings in Bucksport. The move was part of a cost-cutting effort to offset the loss of $890,000 in state education subsidy.

The district expects to save $328,000 by closing the school. Those savings were outlined in a 45-page closure report, developed by the superintendent working with officials at the state Department of Education prior to the RSU board’s decision. That report also included background information, district enrollment projections, a rationale for closing the school and a detailed analysis of the impact of closing the school on all levels of the RSU budget.

As part of the formal state process for closing the school, that report was forwarded to the town and to the commissioner of education. Residents had until Friday to provide comments to the commissioner who will determine the final savings figure.

Several residents reviewed the document and one resident wrote expressing sadness at the closure of the school, according to Ed Rankin, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. He said the town would not offer any formal comments to the commissioner.

The commissioner will have 10 days to review the closure document and approve or reject  the estimate of savings.

That is an important step since it sets the amount the town would have to raise if residents vote to keep the school open. The final decision on school closure will be up to voters in the town, but if they decide to keep the school open, they would have to then raise the entire amount that would have been saved by closing the school in addition to the town’s share of the rest of the RSU budget.

Raising the currently estimated $328,000 amount locally would increase the property tax on property valued at $100,000 by about $185, Rankin said.

Since local officials worked with the Department of Education to prepare the report, the selectman said, the amount of estimated savings is not likely to change.

There is some sentiment for keeping the school open, Rankin said, but there also are a lot of residents who are concerned about the potential tax increase. That concern likely will tip the vote in favor of closing the school, he said, and the selectmen are proceeding on that assumption.

The closure plan calls for the district to turn over ownership of the building to the town. But Superintendent Boothby has indicated that the district would not simply walk away from the building. Although the town would own the building as of the end of this school year, Boothby has indicated the district would work with the town during a transition period.

The selectmen met with Boothby on Thursday and reached a tentative agreement to have the district continue to provide some funding to maintain the building over the next three years.

“They’ll continue to help out with things like lights, heat, snowplowing and some maintenance, up to a certain amount,” he said. “We don’t have an exact dollar amount yet. We still have to negotiate that.”

The town will pick up the cost of insurance on the building, he said, adding that that expense probably would not affect local property taxes.

The transition period will give the town a chance to explore future uses for the building. There already have been some suggestions as to how the building could be used, and Rankin said the selectmen likely will create a committee to explore the possibilities. Residents can contact the selectmen if they are interested in serving on that committee, but Rankin said they probably will wait for the results of the town vote before appointing members.

It appears that the timing of the formal closure process will allow the selectmen to schedule that vote at the annual town meeting which is set for May 10.

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