Troubled fiscal environment blamed for Stetson school closure plan

Posted May 11, 2011, at 8:25 p.m.

STETSON, Maine — For the second time in as many years, the SAD 64 board of directors has looked to the closure of Stetson Elementary School to close a budget gap — only this time, the process is nearly complete.

The district’s budget committee and board of directors have both opted to close the school at the end of the current school year. All that’s left is a June 7 vote by Stetson residents on whether they alone will pick up the tab to keep the school open at a cost of $105,412 per year. RSU 64 covers the towns of Bradford, Corinth, Hudson, Kenduskeag and Stetson.

“These have certainly been difficult conversations and the decision for the board to close the school was not made lightly,” said SAD 64 Superintendent Daniel Higgins. “Closing a school in a community is never an easy decision.”

The closure plan, which also includes cutting a kindergarten and first-grade position, would send the Stetson school’s students — who total 46 this year in kindergarten through second grade — to Kenduskeag Elementary School. Students currently attending the Kenduskeag school who live in Corinth would in turn be transferred to Bradford Elementary School.

Higgins said his district, like many others in Maine, has suffered eroding state aid for education over the past few years. Staff, programs and administration have all been whittled away to balance the budget, leaving the Stetson school closure as one of the only big-ticket items to consider. The board of directors is also considering cuts to or the elimination of the industrial arts program at Central High School in Corinth.

“Over the past three or four years we have made a number of cuts,” said Higgins. “There’s not a lot left out there to look at.”

The plan to close the Stetson school does not come without consternation from parents in that town. Jolene Butler has three children, including a daughter in the fourth grade and a son in kindergarten. Butler’s daughter has already started going to Morison Memorial School in Corinth after a decision last year to move the fourth grade out of Stetson. Butler said her daughter already has a more than hourlong bus ride to and from school and that the same commute is in the future for her other two children if the Stetson school is closed.

“By the time my daughter gets home from school, she’s exhausted,” said Butler. “She falls asleep on the bus each way. If this goes through, my kids are going to be getting on the bus at 6:30 a.m. and not getting home until after 4 p.m. That’s rough.”

Butler also contends that the Stetson school has been an excellent learning environment for her students and that although the building is old, there is little wrong with it.

Higgins emphasized that the closure plan is by no means a measure of the quality of programming in Stetson and said the building is in good shape. He said the district will retain ownership of the building — as opposed to turning it over to the town or selling it — in case the district can ever scrape together enough money to start a pre-kindergarten program.

“The primary reason this issue has come about is the fiscal environment,” he said.

A public informational hearing on the closure plan will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stetson Town Meeting House.

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