MONTICELLO, Maine — Now that the RSU 29 board has voted to close Wellington School in Monticello due to declining enrollment and a desire to save taxpayer dollars, the school board and the district are working together to formulate a plan to move students to Houlton next year.
Mike Hammer, RSU 29 superintendent, said Wednesday afternoon that the school board discussed the issue at its Monday evening meeting.
During a special meeting on March 31, the board voted 7-2 in favor of shuttering the school at the end of June. 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 from Houlton Elementary School. The Monticello school educates 66 pupils in pre-kindergarten through third grade.
School board members have suggested closing Wellington School several times in the past but 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. There were 70 pupils in 1998, a number that dropped to 56 in 2011.
According to Hammer, preliminary estimates show that the district will save approximately $188,000 by closing Wellington School. Hammer said 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.
According to information provided by the Wellington School, the staff includes three full-time teachers, on teacher/acting principal, and one part-time pre-kindergarten teacher. There are also four full-time support staff members, four teachers who travel to Wellington from other schools in the district each week for a half day, a school nurse who comes to the school one day per week, along with one custodian and one cook.
The superintendent said Wednesday that the state Department of Education commissioner is reviewing information related to the possible closure.
“If he says that we can’t close the school, we’ll simply add the school back into the budget,” said Hammer. “If he gives us the go-ahead, we’ll set a date for the referendum so that the citizens in Monticello can vote on the issue.”
Residents of 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.
Town Manager Ginger Pryor last week said that she did not believe that the town would vote to keep the school open, citing the impact that it would have on the town’s mill rate.
Hammer said that the closure of the school was based solely on finances and declining enrollment, and did not in any way reflect on the quality of teachers at the school.
“We have excellent teachers at Wellington and at all of our schools,” he said Wednesday, “This is just simply based on finances. Students at Wellington get a great education.”
Hammer said that one of the concerns that he has heard from parents of children who attend Wellington is they will have to endure longer bus rides in the morning.
“We are looking at a plan to alleviate those concerns,” he said. “A lot of our students have parents who bring them to school now, but we are also looking at having a bus bring the Monticello students to school on one of the last runs.”
Hammer acknowledged that he has heard rumors that Houlton Elementary School, which will house Wellington students, will be so full that some students will be educated in portable classrooms. He said the school, which currently has 447 students, is going to have to use portable classrooms next year for library and computer lab space, but that always has been part of the school’s long-term plan.
“We would then turn the library space into classroom space,” he said. “We would be able to keep all of our students in the main building, and they would only have to go outside to the portables once a week when it’s their library time or things like that. No one would be using a portable as a classroom.”
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 since has turned the structure into a thriving agricultural museum.