ST. FRANCIS, Maine — A plan to bus three grade levels from the farthest reaches of SAD 27 to the elementary school in Fort Kent was rejected in a split school board vote Thursday night.
The recommendation to eliminate grades four, five and six at the St. Francis Elementary School was defeated 5-4 following close to an hour of public comment.
In a compromise move the board directed the superintendent to re-examine the district’s policy on parental rights to transfer students from one elementary school to another.
With no clear budgetary savings attached to the elimination of three grade levels, most of the more than 150 parents and community members packed into the St. Francis’ school gym for the meeting questioned the need for the recommendation in the first place.
“This has not been fun for [Chief Financial Officer] Lucie [Tabor] and I to figure out what would work and what would not,” Tim Doak, SAD 27 superintendent, said Thursday night. “But we built a budget based on [the elimination of the grades] in mind and we need a decision.”
Passed by district voters last month, the fiscal year 2011-12 budget did not include funding for an open fifth and sixth grade teaching principal position in St. Francis.
Instead, the funds were targeted toward hiring an additional fifth and sixth grade teacher in Fort Kent.
Those funds remain part of the existing budget, Doak said, so the board could decide to rearrange how the money is spent.
Doak, former principal at Fort Kent Community High School, also reminded those attending Thursday’s meeting that much of the budget and any discussions about eliminating grade levels at the St. Francis school occurred before he was named superintendent three weeks ago.
He said the issue was important enough to him to warrant public scrutiny before the board took action.
Despite his contention, the remarks did not sit well with some parents and residents, given the SAD 27 budget was voted on last month with no mention of possible grade eliminations at any of the district’s four elementary schools.
“I smell a fox in the henhouse,” said Regina Kelley, a St. Francis native and current teacher at Bangor High School. “You push the budget on the people [and] you should have had this meeting before we voted on that budget.”
The timing did not matter, said board member and state Rep. John Martin.
“There is sufficient money in the budget to keep the grades here,” Martin said. “As a board we have the ability to transfer funds into different accounts, but we may have to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Martin said he was against eliminating the grades, as he is not convinced the move would benefit the students.
“I was against moving grades seven and eight [to Fort Kent] from the Eagle Lake Elementary School and I’m still not satisfied they are getting a good education in Fort Kent,” he said. “I think there is some misunderstanding about the quality of education in smaller schools.”
Projected enrollment for the fall in grades prekindergarten through grade six is 52 students in St. Francis, 80 in Eagle Lake, and 96 in Wallagrass. Another 487 students are expected to attend Fort Kent Elementary School, but that includes seventh- and eighth-graders.
Three parents spoke in favor of the move, all citing access to broader educational and social opportunities available in Fort Kent, 17 miles down the road from the St. Francis school.
“I support the idea wholeheartedly,” Michelle Pelletier said. “This is about what is best for the children’s education and they are being deprived of a well-rounded social life due to small enrollment and lack of exposure to different teachers.”
Students in St. Francis often have the same teachers for multiple years due to combined grades and classes, Pelletier said.
Kelly Deprey said her two children are begging to attend classes in Fort Kent.
“Both of my children want to transfer [to Fort Kent] and that option should be open to all of them,” she said.
But Regina Kelley speculated out loud about the impact the move would have on her grandson, who lives on the western end of Allagash and is among the students who would have to travel the furthest to get to the Fort Kent school.
For him, she said, it would mean a 94-mile round trip bus ride every school day.
“When I’m here, I see him drive by at 6:30 a.m. and he does not get here at St. Francis until 7:30 or quarter to eight,” Kelly said. “Tell me that can be good for his education.”
Chase Jackson, a member of the SAD 10 school board said, “I see a one-sided school board that wants to close this school down. But I think we could all be happy if we leave St. Francis school intact and allow parents to take their children to Fort Kent if they want.”
SAD 27 and SAD 10 combined two years ago into Alternative Organizational Structure 95 for administrative purposes, with each retaining its own, autonomous, school board.
SAD 10 has paid tuition to send its students to SAD 27 schools since the mid 1990s when the Allagash Consolidated School closed due to low enrollments.
On Thursday evening, Jackson presented the SAD 27 board a petition with 194 signatures supporting leaving the grades as is in St. Francis.
That petition, he said, countered an earlier one in support of the move that contained only 19 signatures.
“I think 194 trumps 19,” he said. “At least that’s the math I was taught.”
Board member Bertrand Michaud of Fort Kent voted with the minority in eliminating the grades, saying his own personal research on students bused for an hour one way in central Aroostook County districts indicated it was not detrimental.
While not wholly supportive of the idea, board member James O’Malley of Fort Kent said it was time for the board to make some hard choices in the face of shrinking budgets and low enrollments.
O’Malley ultimately voted with the majority in keeping the grades in St. Francis, but added, “We are a board that can’t be afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear. And that day is coming.”