MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine — Faced with increasing costs and declining enrollment, school officials from two MDI towns have decided to consider whether merging their K-8 schools might make sense.
Elected school board officials from Southwest Harbor and Tremont met Monday evening at MDI High School to talk about what merger options might exist and what process would have to be followed to make it happen. Ultimately, the officials stressed, a merger of Tremont Consolidated School and Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor would have to be approved by voters in the two towns if it were to go forward and, if it did, likely would take a couple of years to complete.
“This is not something the school committees can do on their own,” Amy Young, chairman of the Southwest Harbor School Committee, said at the meeting.
Currently, the two towns combined are spending about $5 million to educate approximately 260 pupils. Tremont has 124 pupils and a school budget of about $2.3 million, while Southwest Harbor has 140 pupils and a school budget of $2.8 million. The two schools in the neighboring towns are less than three miles apart.
Rob Liebow, superintendent of the MDI school system, said he and school administrators have had informal conversations about the idea. One concept — having children in kindergarten through fourth grade from both towns attend school in Tremont and children in grades five through eight attend school in Southwest Harbor — did not reveal a lot of potential savings, he said. Another idea — closing the Tremont school and having all children from the two towns attend Pemetic — likely would save more money but may not be the best educational option for the students, he said. The Southwest Harbor school building was built to accommodate a maximum of 350 pupils.
Consolidating the two towns’ elementary schools could provide benefits beyond reducing costs, according to Liebow. If there were two fourth grade classes in one building rather than one at each school, teachers in the same grade could provide more support to each other, he said. It might be easier to piece together an advanced learning class with more students in a larger system, he added, and could provide students with social benefits by having them adjust to a larger school before they attend MDI High School.
Ingrid Kachmar of the Southwest Harbor School Committee said her board is under local pressure to be as cost-efficient as possible. Amy Murphy, chairman of the Tremont school board, said that though costs are a concern, she has never heard anyone in Tremont say to her that consolidating with Southwest Harbor is the answer.
“I’ve never heard that,” Murphy said.
Liebow said that, as the idea is discussed further, there likely will be concerns about sending pupils to another town or about having them in a larger-scale setting, just as there was in the 1960s when the four towns on MDI consolidated their high schools. He said he researched the high-school consolidation debate that occurred decades ago by reading archives from the weekly Bar Harbor Times newspaper.
“The actual word ‘gang’ was used,” Liebow said about fears of having several unruly children in one building. “The little issues will be the same. I don’t think it will be any different.”
After an hour-long discussion, the two boards agreed to meet again sometime next month to discuss the idea further. A date for that discussion has not yet been set.