ORLAND, Maine — With a heavy turnout on Monday, voters backed a plan to close the Orland Consolidated School at the end of this year.
With 753 ballots cast, the turnout was “unprecedented” for a municipal election and provided a good cross-section of town, according to Town Clerk Connie Brown. The town has about 1,700 registered voters.
The results were 469-281 in favor of the RSU 24 plan to close the school and consolidate all programs and classes at the school buildings in Bucksport.
“I’m glad we had the big turnout,” Selectman Ed Rankin said. “I think the school had a lot to do with that.”
In the only contested municipal race on the ballot, inclumbent Selectman Ralph Gonzales defeated two challengers to win another three-year term on the board. Gonzales received 322 votes; Matt Brown, 230 votes; and Dexter Johnson, 168.
The school issue was an emotional one for Orland residents. While some viewed the school as the “heart and soul” of the town, others were concerned about the increased costs to the town involved in keeping the school open. The RSU school board had voted to close the building earlier in the year as a move to save $329,000. Those savings were part of a wider, district-wide cost-cutting plan in an effort to offset the loss of $890,000 in state subsidy in the coming year.
Under the RSU agreement, if voters had rejected the closure plan and decided to keep the school open, the town would have had to pay the total $329,000 that would have been saved in addition to the town’s share of the total RSU budget for the coming year.
Rankin said concerns about the added costs of keeping the school open along with the current economic situation probably were determining factors for those who voted to close the school.
“Times are hard and people are trying to save money any way they can,” he said. “There’s the economy and enrollment is going down. People see that and they figure it’s just not feasible any more.”
The vote affirms the RSU board’s decision to close the school at the end of the school year.
“We’ll proceed forward with the closing of the school,” Superintendent Jim Boothby said. “When we open in the fall, we will not be using the Orland Consolidated School.”
Monday’s vote will not affect another planned vote on the school budget set for Tuesday night, May 10. According to Boothby, the board had prepared parallel budgets, one with the school open, one with it closed.
“We’re prepared to move forward,” he said.
Under the RSU agreement, the district will turn over the building to the town of Orland after the end of the school year. Boothby said the district is working with town selectmen on the transition and school officials have indicated that the RSU will help with operational and maintenance costs during the next several years. The two boards are still working out the details of that cooperation.
Rankin said the selectmen plan to form a committee to decide what to do with the school building in the future.
“We’ll meet probably next week to put together a committee to figure out what to do with it or whether to market it,” he said. “There’s already been quite a lot of interest in that committee.”
Anyone interested in participating in that process can contact the town office at 469-3186.