Stetson voters reverse decision to close school

Posted June 08, 2011, at 8:28 p.m.

STETSON, Maine — Residents voted decisively Tuesday to cancel the closure of Stetson Elementary School by picking up the $105,000 tab to keep it open for the next year.

Residents also elected a new selectman and road commissioner, though the result of a vote for a school board representative was inconclusive.

With a 261-151 vote, residents essentially have reversed a decision earlier this year by the SAD 64 board of directors to close the school at the end of this school year. That means the school will remain open and plans to transfer the 46 students in kindergarten through second grade to Kenduskeag Elementary School are scuttled.

“I’m not surprised,” said district Superintendent Daniel Higgins. “I thought it would be a closer vote, but there’s a great deal of support for the school in Stetson, and understandably so.”

Higgins said Tuesday’s vote also reverses a decision to cut a kindergarten and a first-grade teacher who would have lost their jobs because of the school closure. While Stetson will be responsible for the $105,412 cost of maintaining the school for the next year — as opposed to sharing the expense with the SAD 64 towns of Bradford, Corinth, Hudson and Kenduskeag — Higgins said keeping the school open will cost the district an additional $23,000. That’s because the savings calculations used in the school closure process were based on 2-year-old data as dictated in the Maine Department of Education’s rules.

Higgins did not know how the board of directors, which was scheduled to meet Wednesday evening, would choose to fund the $23,000. The overall district budget will be voted on by the public at a hearing later this month, followed by a validation vote that is scheduled for June 30.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the situation that played out in Stetson on Tuesday is rare in Maine.

“Usually when a school board votes to close a school the town does the same,” said Connerty-Marin.

In the past two years, residents of Maine municipalities have reversed school board decisions only twice, according to Connerty-Marin, once in Cherry Hill and once in Harpswell. That total doubled as of Tuesday. In addition to Stetson, the Washington County town of Wesley also voted Tuesday to save eight-student Wesley Elementary from closure. The town of Andover in Oxford County is scheduled to vote on June 16 whether to raise $214,600 to keep Andover Elementary School open, according to The Bethel Citizen newspaper’s website.

Closure of the Stetson school has elicited strong emotions from some townspeople, particularly parents concerned about lengthy bus rides for their young children. Board of Selectmen Chairman Don Carroll said most everyone he talked to leading up to the vote wanted to keep the school open.

“It was an overwhelming vote to keep it open so I guess the people are prepared to pay for it,” Carroll said Wednesday. He estimated that the town’s property tax rate of $13.90 per $1,000 of valuation would increase by at least $1 as a result of Tuesday’s vote, and that other increases in the SAD 64 and Penobscot County budgets could increase taxes further. A $1 increase on the property tax rate would result in a $100 property tax jump for a home worth $100,000. Carroll said the exact impact on taxes is not yet known, but would become clearer in the next couple of weeks leading up to the annual town meeting at 10 a.m. June 18 at the Stetson Meeting House.

Carroll said he voted to keep the school open even though he is retired with no children in school.

“I spent quite a while debating it,” he said. “I guess $105,000 is a lot of money in anybody’s language, but I don’t see that as a lot of money when we’re talking about a district budget of $10 million. I just hope we’ve done the right thing, that’s all.”

Carroll also said he was concerned about the town’s youngest students boarding a bus as early as 6:30 a.m. with an equally long ride home at the end of the day.

“That’s a long day for a 5-year-old,” he said.

Higgins said under state laws, Stetson is responsible for the $105,000 for the 2011-12 school year, but that the expense would shift back to the full district next summer unless the board of directors opts to start the closure process anew.

Stetson voters also decided several other issues during Tuesday’s voting, according to results provided by the town office.

Charles Leighton was victorious over Irving Currier for a seat on the Board of Selectmen with a vote of 278-118. Leighton will replace Lois Hawes, who opted not to seek re-election.

Road Commissioner John Biggar was ousted from his position by William Barriault with a vote of 210-191.

There were no names on the ballot for a position on the SAD 64 board of directors, but two people, incumbent Kathleen Snow and Jody Brasslett, received four write-in votes each. An employee at the town office said it was undecided what will happen with the seat if neither person accepts it. Eleven other people, including Donald Duck, received one write-in vote each.

Voters also enacted a new ordinance that requires selectmen to use a new bid process for sanding, plowing and solid waste services with a vote of 311-97.

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