Orland voters question how much district would save by closing school

RSU 24 is considering closing the school despite recent upgrades to its facilities.
RSU 24 is considering closing the school despite recent upgrades to its facilities.
Posted April 27, 2011, at 9:35 p.m.
A homemade sign on Route 1 in Orland reminds residents to attend a public hearing to discuss the plan to close the Orland Consolidated School at the end of this school year.
A homemade sign on Route 1 in Orland reminds residents to attend a public hearing to discuss the plan to close the Orland Consolidated School at the end of this school year.
Pam Haseltine discusses unusual sea life with her fourth-graders during class at Orland Consolidated School in March.
Pam Haseltine discusses unusual sea life with her fourth-graders during class at Orland Consolidated School in March.

ORLAND, Maine — About 100 residents turned out Tuesday night for a public hearing on the proposal to close the Orland Consolidated School at the end of this school year.

And though several questioned the estimated savings to the district by closing the school, others expressed concern that many town residents could not afford the tax increase that would need to be assessed to keep the school open.

The RSU 25 board voted in March to close the school and move all of the district’s programs to Bucksport schools. The decision was part of a wider cost-saving effort that Superintendent Jim Boothby stresses has hit all levels, programs and buildings in the district as administrators try to offset the reduction of almost $900,000 in state revenues.

Based on a state formula, closing the school is expected to save $328,000. Orland residents have the option to keep the school open but if they choose to do so they would have to pay the full amount of the savings in addition to the town’s share of the school unit’s budget for the coming year.

Several residents questioned how the district arrived at that figure. The complicated state formula is based on the district’s last audited budgeted figures, Boothby explained, which went back to the 2008-2009 school year.

Resident Jeannie Sargent said there had been changes at the school since that time and the district already had moved students in grades five through eight to Bucksport schools. She listed a number of reductions and cuts to programs and staff at the school that had been made as part of that change. Those cuts, she said, totaled about $250,000 and suggested that those funds already were part of the estimated savings.

“We’ve already given a lot of that money up,” she said.

Dexter Johnson drove the point home.

“Some of what’s in that $328,000 has already been cut by the Orland school,” he said, adding that the amount that the town would have to raise would be for programs that no longer exist.

Not so, according to Boothby. Although the formula was based on a pre-kindergarten-through-grade-eight program at the Orland school, he said, it was adjusted to account for the changes that had been made at the school.

“The initial estimate for savings was about $511,000,” he said. “That amount was pro-rated and accounts for the difference in the numbers of students.”

Residents have raised concerns about the quality of education at Bucksport schools, pointing to standardized test scores in which Orland students scored higher than their counterparts in Bucksport. The question came up again on Tuesday.

“You’re not comparing apples to apples,” Boothby said, noting that a large number of special education students from Orland already are being educated in the Bucksport schools and that their test scores are included in Bucksport’s numbers.

Some residents questioned the wisdom of having joined the regional school unit under the state’s reorganization effort, and there was some suggestion that the town consider withdrawing from the district at the end of the next school year when it will be legal for it to do so.

Boothby stressed that while the town could withdraw, it would have to have a plan in place for educating all of its students, a plan that would involve contracts with another school district.

He stressed that the operations of the school unit have produced savings and that the budget being developed for the coming school year is about $13.1 million, less than the $16.5 million combined budget of the district schools before consolidation and about a half million less than last year’s budget.

Orland’s share of the district budget also has decreased since the RSU was formed, even though the amount raised locally has increased, according to Boothby. The last year that Orland operated its own school, its budget was about $2.9 million. Under the proposed budget, he said, Orland’s share would be about $2.13 million. However, because of reductions in state subsidy, the amount that is raised through local taxes has increased.

The local tax bill was a concern for some residents. Elaine Pelletier said that while Orland was a good school, she was concerned about how many programs had been cut and that more might have to be cut if the school was kept open. She also urged residents to consider the impact of having to raise an additional $328,000 on taxpayers, many of whom already are having difficulty paying their taxes.

Town voters have the final say on the issue. The question of whether they support the school board’s decision or not will be on a referendum ballot for the annual town meeting on May 9.

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