SEARSPORT, Maine — Teachers from around the state have walked the halls of Searsport’s high school and middle school to learn about a midcoast educational miracle.
Searsport District High School, which lost its accreditation in 1997 because of crumbling facilities, has remade itself into a place of educational innovation that was an early adopter of the standards-based educational system. A massive rebuild and renovation project of that school and the adjacent Searsport District Middle School, completed in 2002, gave the students clean, bright classrooms, a spacious library with soaring ceilings and much more.
But faculty, administrators and students are worried that the years of innovation and hard work may be for naught if the Regional School Unit 20 board of directors ends up deciding to close the school as a cost-cutting measure. The cash-strapped and divided eight-town school district is looking at three action plans designed to save money and consolidate the far-flung district. In two of the three plans, the Searsport high school and middle school would be shuttered.
The district includes Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville, all of which are working on withdrawing from the school district. Frankfort already successfully withdrew from the district.
Dawn Staples-Knox, a science teacher at the Searsport high school, attended a public forum about the plans earlier this week at Belfast Area High School. She said she sat and listened until she couldn’t take it any longer.
“I raised my hand and said, ‘I’d really like you to consider not closing our school,’” she recounted Thursday. “I’m a 27-year teaching veteran, and I am excited about coming to school because we are doing cutting-edge stuff.”
She said that if their students were bused to Belfast, it would take a lot of the passion out of the community’s evolving plans for education. Those include making the high school a dedicated marine trades and environmental science school, where students would come for hands-on learning and for a strong background in science, technology, engineering and math. School administrators also are working on bringing Chinese students to Searsport.
“I basically told the board they they are shooting themselves in the foot, if they close us,” Staples-Knox said.
The three courses of action being discussed have been whittled down from an original seven and the details are available on RSU 20’s website. Further public forums will not be scheduled until after the school board’s next regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
— Course of Action 3 would close elementary schools in Northport, Swanville, Morrill, East Belfast and Stockton Springs as well as the high school and middle school in Searsport. The students would be bused to the five remaining schools in the district, and only Searsport Elementary School would remain open on the east side of the Passagassawakeag River.
— Course of Action 5 would close the elementary schools in Northport, Swanville, Morrill, East Belfast and Stockton Springs, but leave the high school and middle school in Searsport open.
— Course of Action “Steve,” named after Director Stephen Hopkins of Belmont, would close the elementary schools in Morrill, Swanville and Stockton Springs and the middle school and high school in Searsport.
The Stockton Springs Elementary School this year was repurposed as an early childhood education center, with its elementary students bused to Searsport.
Although many in the communities may find the plans unpalatable, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter has said that something must be done. Last fall, the district took three tries to finally pass a $33.4 million budget, which resulted in a large increase in property taxes because of decreases in state aid.
“They have to take some kind of action as a region,” he told the BDN earlier this month. “The bottom line is, where are we getting the money from? If you want to keep the little schools open, you’re going to have to pay for it. I don’t think the voters can pay for another 10 percent property tax increase.”
But RSU 20 Director Denise Dakin of Stockton Springs said Thursday that she’s not sure the board will choose any of the three options.
“You need a two-thirds majority vote to close any school, and I’m not sure that would happen,” she said. “I think that the people of Stockton Springs and Searsport came out loud and clear Tuesday night, as did several other people from other towns. It’s the state not giving us enough money, and we’re going to have a shortfall. … It’s a mess. A big mess.”
Students including Chauntelle Gillo, 16, of Frankfort hope that voters and school board members won’t lose sight of kids like her as they try to sort it all out. The Searsport District High School junior began this academic year attending Hampden Academy, along with other high school students from her small town, but didn’t thrive there. She asked for a superintendent’s agreement so she could go back to RSU 20, and spent a week or so at Belfast Area High School before returning to Searsport for good in November.
“It is definitely more welcoming. We really don’t judge people like the other schools do,” the teen, who aspires to become a nurse, said. “It took me two other schools to figure that out.”