ROCKLAND, Maine — A public forum has been set for Tuesday, March 19, on a proposal, unveiled Thursday night, to merge Rockland District Middle School and Thomaston Grammar School starting in September.
Superintendent Lew Collins said Friday morning he has received questions from many people since he announced that the merger was under consideration. He said he had not yet had time to inform the staff of the proposal but wanted to speak to the board before the administration presents its proposed 2013-14 budget on April 1. Thursday night’s meeting was the last board meeting before April 1, he said.
Collins said the merger is a proposal and not set in stone.
The proposal calls for sixth- and seventh-graders from all the communities except St. George being educated at Thomaston Grammar School in Thomaston. In addition, fifth-graders from Thomaston would remain at Thomaston Grammar.
The two schools are a little more than four miles apart.
This would create a middle school of about 250 students, he said, which would still be small in terms of middle schools.
The merger is being proposed because RSU 13 is facing a projected $1.6 million budget gap.
Collins said he is working on numbers to determine what the savings would be with the merger. There will be savings with utilities, he said, because the South School would not be used. The kindergarten through fifth-grade students in Rockland would be relocated to the Rockland District Middle School building, which is attached to the South School in Rockland.
Rockland District Middle School was built in 1998. The South School was built in the 1949 but expanded and modernized in 1998.
Fifth-graders from Owls Head and South Thomaston would remain at the Owls Head Central School. St. George fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders would remain at the St. George School.
RDMS currently has 183 students, while Thomaston Grammar has 114, according to enrollment figures provided Friday by the district.
The South School currently has 299 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Collins said he projects that the South School enrollment would be more than 300 students with the proposed change.
The superintendent said that he has not looked at the possibility of closing schools such as the Owls Head Central School with 80 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, or Gilford Butler in South Thomaston, which has 82 students in kindergarten, first and second grades from Owls Head and South Thomaston.
The closure of either of those schools would require public hearings, a formal vote of the board and a referendum in the town where an elementary school is being proposed for closure. Collins said he would not be considering that for 2013-14.
He also pointed out that closing either of them would leave them without any school. Rockland will still have schools, he noted.
The March 19 forum will begin at 5:30 p.m. at RDMS.
The merger of the two middle schools would come two years after the district merged its two high schools. The merger of Rockland District High School in Rockland and Georges Valley High School in Thomaston created Oceanside High School.
The merger is being looked at to save money, Collins noted.
The projected $1.6 million budget gap is the result of fixed cost increases, such as for fuel, food, health insurance and staff step increases already negotiated. In addition, the district expects to receive less state aid. The superintendent said that the governor’s proposal for local districts to pick up a share of teacher retirement contributions would cost RSU 13 $333,000 in the next budget year.
Collins said that even with the merger, the district will have to look at cutting positions to bridge the budget gap.
He said, however, that while he hopes to bridge two-thirds of the gap with cuts, the remaining third will need to come from additional property taxes from the six communities within RSU 13 — Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing. Rockland will see the biggest share of any increase in property taxes because of the cost-sharing formula adopted when the RSU was created in 2009.
The district has faced budget reductions in the past few years since SADs 5 and 50 created the new regional district.