MONTICELLO — It was clear on Tuesday evening that residents here do not want their local school closed. And SAD 29 board members, concerned they did not have enough data yet to make an informed decision, agreed to wait another year before taking any action.
During the nearly four-hour special board meeting held at the pre-kindergarten through third grade Wellington School, the board voted to end discussions about the future of the school for at least the 2011-2012 school year.
The meeting was held a little more than two weeks after the board asked interim Superintendent Ray Freve 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, but stands now at 56 pupils, down from 70 in 1998.
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 that serves pre-kindergarten through third-grade students. The Monticello school is about 13 miles away from Houlton Elementary School.
Declining enrollment at Wellington School and a districtwide need to do some fiscal belt tightening prompted the recent discussion about closing the Monticello facility.
Freve said the board could vote to close the school before the start of the 2011-2012 school year, but they had to make a decision by April 4, so that he would have time to meet state deadlines.
The superintendent said during Tuesday evening’s meeting that the maximum that could be saved if the school were closed was $482,654. Savings would decrease, however, based on the number of Wellington teachers who would be transferred to jobs at Houlton Elementary School.
The approximately 60 people attending the meeting were a mixture of current and former teachers, Wellington students and alumni, parents and community members. They spoke passionately about the school, with some speakers in tears. Residents described a close-knit school where students get more one-on-one attention and exposure to visual and performing arts. They also raved about the quality of education at the school. Dawn Dougan, the district’s curriculum coordinator, told the crowd that pupils at the school have earned “fantastic” scores on mandated academic tests.
“The students are doing great, and the scores get better every year,” Dougan said.
One major concern for parents was that children from the school would face an estimated hour and a half long bus ride to HES if the Monticello school were closed. They also were not happy with the projected increase in student-to-teacher ratios that would affect pupils if they were transferred to HES.
At this point, the student-to-teacher ratio for second graders at Wellington is 14 students per teacher. If the school were closed and no Wellington teachers were transferred to HES, the ratio would jump to 23 students per teacher for the same grade. Several residents told the board that they believed that ratio was too high.
Speakers and school board members also expressed concern about the number of Littleton and Monticello pupils who already choose to be educated in Houlton. Parents in the district are allowed to choose which school they want their children to attend. Now, 76 students from Littleton and Monticello are attending HES, which is dramatically affecting enrollment at Wellington. Freve said he is not sure why parents are choosing to send their children to Houlton, but audience members said that it was mainly due to the lack of day care facilities in Littleton and Monticello to accommodate parents who have jobs in Houlton.
Several speakers said they felt that the district should mandate that all Littleton and Monticello children attend Wellington, with a few exceptions.
Nancy Wright, the Wellington School principal and first-grade teacher, said the threat of closure has been hanging over the school for more than two decades. She pointed out a number of special projects and activities that are ongoing at the school, including a school garden, a visual and performing arts curriculum and a ski program, initiatives that are mostly supported through fundraisers. She added that the threat of closure was one reason for the school’s declining enrollment.
“Some parents haven’t sent their children here because they feared their education would be disrupted if the school all of a sudden shut down,” she said. “I have seen teachers transfer to Houlton, because they wanted job security.”
She told the board that nothing was broken at the school, and advised them to leave it open.
Wright received a standing ovation for her speech.
Frank Sullivan, who lives in Littleton, has one child who attended the school and another enrolled there. He also was concerned about the long bus rides and said that closing Wellington and forcing the youngsters to attend HES would take away the school choice option for taxpayers in Littleton and Monticello.
Bob Bartlett, another Littleton resident, told the board that taxpayers in that community were told in 2000 they would save money after the closing of the Littleton Elementary School. In spite of that, however, he said taxpayers have been asked to contribute more toward the local share of the cost of education for most of the past decade.
In 2005, Steve Fitzpatrick, who then was superintendent of SAD 29, said that HES was “bursting at the seams” when there were 365 students in the building. Now there are 411. The board had no information on Tuesday night concerning whether HES could even accommodate the 56 Wellington students. Freve said there would not be enough space at the Houlton school without certain renovations. He couldn’t speculate on the cost of those renovations.
After three and a half hours of discussion, a number of board members said they simply couldn’t make an informed decision by the April 4 deadline.
“When you are around Houlton, the remark I hear most is ‘it makes sense to close Wellington, you’ve seen the numbers,’” said Fred Grant, who represents Houlton on the board. “But we haven’t seen the numbers. We haven’t been told how many student HES can absorb. I don’t see how we can make an informed decision in such a short period of time. I think we need to move on.”
Tammy Goetsch and Paul Cleary, who also represent Houlton on the board, agreed.
“I need more than a week, two weeks or a month to decide this,” said Cleary. “I need to give these people due process and investigate every option before I can make a decision.”
“I don’t think we can make this decision by April 4,” Goetsch added.
Jennifer Johnston, a board member from Monticello, has always been in favor of keeping the school open. She noted that Nancy Wright had told the board that she had a number of ideas on how the school could save money. Johnston suggested SAD 29 administrators tap into her knowledge.
No one who testified before the board spoke in favor of closing the school. One resident, who asked not to be identified because he is the spouse of a district employee, said during the meeting that he felt the decision was being “rushed.”
“I am just confused about why this was brought up so late in the school year, so that the board only has a week to think about it,” he said. “I know the superintendent kept saying that they could close the school this year as long as they met the April 4 deadline, but is it right to deliberate for such a short time? Is it right to decide to end 60 years of history in one week? The board should gather facts and deliberate for weeks or months prior to a decision this big.”
The board ultimately decided to let the matter drop. The decision drew rousing cheers from the audience.