MONTICELLO, Maine — After y ears of declining enrollment, rising expenses and several attempts to close the school in the past, the Regional School Unit 29 board decided Monday evening that it was time to shut the doors at the Wellington School in Monticello for good.
During a half hour meeting that took place before the group entered into executive session to discuss other matters, the board voted 7-2 in favor of shuttering the school at the end of June, Mike Hammer, district superintendent, said Tuesday. There was one abstention.
RSU 29 educates about 1,300 students from the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello. Wellington is one of two elementary schools in the district, and is about 13 miles away from Houlton Elementary School.
Approximately 20 people attended the meeting to see the board take action regarding the pre-kindergarten through third-grade school.
“There was about a half hour of discussion among the board because this is something we’ve been talking about for the past year,” Hammer said Tuesday. “And I know it’s been talked about in the past.”
School board members have suggested closing Wellington School several times in the past, but have never successfully garnered enough votes to do it. The last time the idea was discussed was in 2011.
Enrollment at the facility has fluctuated over the past 15 years. It now stands at 66 pupils, down from 70 in 1998 but up from 56 in 2011. In 1999, the district commissioned a comprehensive plan and facility-space needs study that was conducted by Baird Farm Studio in Mapleton and PDT Architects in Portland. The $40,000, 110-page study suggested that the Wellington School be targeted for closure by 2009, based on the projected declining population and the fact that the last major renovations were completed in 1982.
According to Hammer, preliminary estimates show that the district will save approximately $188,000 by closing Wellington School. According to the RSU 29 website, there are six teachers in the building, plus 11 other support staff, several of whom travel to other schools in the district in the capacity of school nurse, librarian and more. Hammer said Tuesday that he is not sure yet if any staff would lose their jobs. He said that he believes that with retirements, most or all of the staff could be retained.
The superintendent explained that the district will be sending all of its information to the state Department of Education so that the commissioner can review it. A referendum vote will then be held so that citizens in Monticello can cast ballots to decide whether to keep the school open. If they want to do that, they will have to pay the additional $188,000 cost to make it happen. If the town opts to close it, the district will make a plan to close the school and move the Monticello students to Houlton schools.
Hammer said that no date has yet been set for the referendum.
The district has closed schools before. Voters agreed in 2000 to shutter the Littleton Elementary School after enrollment at the 50-year-old kindergarten through sixth-grade facility declined to 74 pupils. The community has since turned the structure into a thriving agricultural museum.
Monticello Town Manager Ginger Pryor said Tuesday that she did not attend the school board meeting but did hear of the school board’s vote. She said that she was not surprised and did not believe that many citizens were, either.
“I think that many of us wished that this vote could have been next year, but it is what it is,” she said. “It will be hard to see it closed, but $188,000 is a lot of money, and we are getting hit from all sides now financially and that is just a big hit to take. That would sure raise our mill rate if we had to pay for that school ourselves.”
Pryor said that she does not believe that the taxpayers in Monticello will decide to keep the school open and pay the extra $188,000.
“If we were thinking only with our hearts, that is certainly what we would do,” she said. “But we have to think with our checkbooks. Paying an extra $188,000 beyond what we already do would kill us. Our mill rate would just go through the roof.”