Monticello school closure set for public debate Tuesday night

Posted March 28, 2011, at 6:02 p.m.
Last modified March 29, 2011, at 6:30 a.m.

MONTICELLO, Maine — A little more than two weeks after the school board began discussing the possibility of closing the Wellington School in Monticello, a public hearing has been scheduled to review information gathered by SAD 29 Interim Superintendent Ray Freve.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 29, in the all-purpose room at the pre-kindergarten through third grade school.

Freve said Monday that the session will include an informational presentation on the possible closing of the school. Board deliberation will be held after the presentations.

Public comment will be allowed, Freve confirmed Monday.

Earlier this month, the board gave Freve the go-ahead to gather data to illustrate the financial impact of shuttering the school and busing students elsewhere. Enrollment at the Wellington School 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.

SAD 29 educates about 1,300 students from the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello. Wellington is one of two elementary schools in the district. The Monticello school is approximately 13 miles away from Houlton Elementary School, which educates 411 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.

The next nearest school used to be about eight miles away at the Bridgewater Grammar School, but that facility closed in 2008 after years of declining enrollment. Now, the nearest school north of Monticello is in SAD 42 in Mars Hill, about 15 miles away.

Wellington is considered by many to be the heart of the tiny, mainly agricultural community. Pupils are educated at the facility, which also serves as a gathering place and meeting and event center.

The discussion about the future of the school came up both for financial reasons and because board members took notice of the rumblings from taxpayers who have grown louder over the years about declining enrollment at the school.

Some data about the future of the Wellington School were gathered in 1999, after the district commissioned a comprehensive plan and facility-space needs study. One of the recommendations was that the school be closed within 10 years, based on enrollment projections.

Then in 2005, school officials again talked 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.

During the meeting earlier this month, however, all board members but one were in favor of advising Freve to gather data on whether it would be cost-effective to close the school. Freve said he would look into the impact it would have on staff, where the displaced students would be educated if the school did close, and how much it would cost to transport them to Houlton Elementary School. He said he also wanted to determine if it would save money, and how much.

If the board finds it fiscally advantageous to close the Monticello school, the proposal would first have to be approved by the commissioner of the state Department of Education. A public hearing would then be held, and there would be a referendum to see if Monticello voters would approve the closure. If a decision is made to close the school, it could affect the 2011-12 school year, Freve said Monday.

The district has closed schools before. 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. The community has since turned the structure into a thriving agricultural museum.

The enrollment at Houlton Elementary School could be a big factor in deciding the future of the Monticello school. In 2005, Steve Fitzpatrick, who was then the superintendent in SAD 29, said that HES was “bursting at the seams” with students. There were 365 pupils at HES back then. Right now, there are 411, according to statistics provided by the district Monday afternoon. At the same time, the 2005 census study showed that enrollment numbers will be down “significantly” at HES by 2017.

In downtown Houlton on Monday afternoon, several taxpayers said they were in favor of closing the Monticello school.

Karen Martin has two children in the district, none of whom attend Wellington School. She said she believes the district could save “a lot” of money by closing the facility.

“I know that people here love small schools,” she said. “But small schools cost money. I think we would see a difference on our tax bills if we shut it down.”

Ronald Case, a Houlton resident, agreed, as did Tamara Foster, who lives in Littleton.

“I plan to attend the meeting,” said Foster. “My children rode the bus from Littleton to Houlton to go to school and they weren’t negatively impacted by it. If it will save money, I say close it.”

The only board member who was against gathering data about the future of Wellington was Jennifer Johnston, who represents Monticello on the SAD 29 board. She said she was “totally opposed” to closing the school. She speculated that closing the school would mean longer bus rides for children from Monticello and that they would have to ride the school bus with older children.

She added that the school is a hub of activity in the community, and that students and teachers have conducted numerous fundraisers to finance special projects at the facility, including a ski club, festivals and a school garden. The garden is used as a cost-saving measure, as students eat the vegetables they harvest for lunch in the school cafeteria.

There are approximately 10 employees at the Monticello school.

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