FRANKFORT, Maine — Josie McFarlin, 7, ran into her mom’s arms at the end of the school day on Wednesday, chattering away about her third-grade adventures at Frankfort Elementary School.
“I love everything about it,” she told her mom, Theresa McFarlin of Frankfort.
All around her, the school’s hall was filled with lines of boys and girls who seemed dwarfed by their oversize backpacks. The children said goodbye to their teachers and then skipped off to board the buses and head home.
It was the first week of a new school year that nearly didn’t happen in Frankfort, after the RSU 20 board of directors voted in February to close the elementary school in order to save money. Parents vehemently protested the decision for months, and when the board held another vote in May on the matter of the school closure, the directors decided to keep it open for at least another year.
“Like everybody else, we are thrilled,” Theresa McFarlin said Wednesday. “Not just for the school, but for the whole community.”
According to Principal Christina Ellis, there are 80 kindergarten through fifth grade pupils enrolled this year in the elementary school.
She and others described the school as the heart of a rural, spread-out community. In addition to sports and other after-school enrichment activities, the school is where Frankfort holds its annual town meeting and where residents come to events like informational meetings and exercise classes.
“Not only is it the center of the community, it’s home,” Ellis said. “We all play together. We all learn together.”
Last spring, the school district’s budget and finance committee had recommended the closure in order to save nearly $400,000 annually for the district, which faced state and federal revenue reductions of at least $1.8 million.
The pupils would have been bused to another elementary school or schools, which parents opposed.
Twyler Webster, the RSU 20 director from Frankfort, said Wednesday that the first week of school has been a happy one this year. She voted twice against closing the school.
“I’m very, very, very excited that the school stayed open,” she said. “I do understand why they were talking about closing the schools to save money. I do hope that they’ll find another way to save.”
RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux said Thursday that the problems which brought the district to the point of shutting one of its schools have not gone away.
“Nobody likes to close a school, including the superintendent or the school board. It’s a difficult thing. We all know that,” he said. “The issues are declining revenues from the federal level and the state level.”
And, while it may be easy to blame state and federal governments for the school district’s struggles, Mailloux said he doesn’t want to do that.
“In reality, we the citizens are the state. We are the federal [government],” he said. “It’s the times. It’s the economy.”
While the national economic outlook might be gloomy, the children at Frankfort Elementary School on Wednesday all had smiles on their faces.
“We are happy and glad to have it open,” Mailloux said. “The kids are happy. They like being there.”
One of those happy students was Alyssa Rainey, 5, of Frankfort, who had just completed her first day of kindergarten.
She said she hadn’t been nervous at all, though did carefully pick out her first-day-of-school ensemble: pink sandals, pink shorts and a pink T-shirt.
Alyssa said recess was her favorite part of the day, but her mom, Sarah Rainey, reminded her that she just told her family she wants to learn how to read at school.
“Tomorrow, my teacher’s going to teach me how!” the girl exclaimed.
That kind of enthusiasm is what second-grade teacher Christy Baker loves about her job. Her tidy classroom didn’t look like 11 youngsters had just gotten through a packed day of learning that included math, writing in journals and more.
Baker also has two children of her own who attend the school and her husband, Gabe Baker, was instrumental in the push to keep it open. She said that while the long-term future of Frankfort Elementary School might be uncertain, she’s hoping for the best.
“I think everybody is hopeful that we will be open next year,” Baker said. “Everything has always, in this town, centered around the school. People don’t want it to disappear.”