ST. FRANCIS, Maine — Students from one of the state’s smallest communities could find themselves spending up to an additional hour every day busing to school under a proposed plan by the SAD 27 Board of Directors.
At its regular meeting Thursday night, the board will consider the superintendent’s recommendation to eliminate fourth, fifth and sixth grades at the St. Francis Elementary School effective this fall.
The board will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday in the St. Francis Elementary School gymnasium.
If the proposal is approved, that would mean as much as a 90-mile round-trip bus ride for some of the 20 students in those grades who live in Allagash.
Tim Doak, SAD 27 superintendent, knows the suggestion is not a popular one among some parents and Allagash residents, but he added the timing might be right.
“There seems to be a good feeling on the [SAD 27 school] board that this is not a bad place to start moving students,” Doak said.
He said the transfer of the teaching principal in St. Francis to a similar position that will be split between the district’s elementary schools in Wallagrass and Eagle Lake is the main driving force behind the recommendation.
Grades pre-k through three would remain in St. Francis, Doak, said.
“There are people who feel it would be quite a bus ride to Fort Kent from Allagash for the younger grades,” he said.
Among those is SAD 10 board member Chase Jackson who feels the grades should be left alone for now.
In 2009, SAD 27 and 10 combined administratively under Alternative Organizational Structure 95 in accordance with state school consolidation laws.
Under the AOS, each district retained its own school board and operating budgets.
SAD 10 has paid tuition to have students attend schools in Fort Kent and St. Francis since the Allagash Consolidated School was closed in 1995 due to low enrollments.
“A lot of us were under the impression [St. Francis] would not be closed or touched as part of our agreeing to the consolidation,” Jackson said. “You could say we are upset.”
Jackson believes the elimination of the three grade levels is the opening salvo in an overall plan to close the St. Francis school after the board failed to win support for closing the Wallagrass school a year ago.
Doak denied that was the intent.
“I do not believe we are closing the St. Francis school,” he said. “But, it is hard for me to sit here and say it will never be closed if the board looks at that as an option.”
Declining enrollment districtwide is forcing the board into some tough decisions, Doak said.
In grades pre-k through six, there are currently 52 students in St. Francis, 80 in Eagle Lake, and 96 in Wallagrass. There are 487 pre-k through eighth graders attending Fort Kent Elementary School.
Jackson pointed out that a petition supporting leaving the St. Francis school intact garnered about 150 signatures while one calling for the elimination of the grades collected less than 20.
“There is money enough in this year’s budget to keep the [grades] open,” he said. “There is no arguing there is a low student population and I am under no illusions the school may have to close at some point, but this is not the year.”