ST. FRANCIS, Maine — District residents on the western edge of School Administrative District 27 in northern Maine acknowledge the need for substantial budget cuts in the wake of lost state revenues and rising costs of education. They just don’t want it put on the backs of their children.
Last month the SAD 27 Board of Directors instructed district administrators to come back with a “zero dollar increase” budget, translating to $1.8 million in cuts from the initial proposed FY 2014-2015 budget.
In addition to cutting staff by 10 percent, eliminating programs and deferring some projects, the revised proposed budget includes a plan to close St. Francis Elementary School and bus its next year’s enrollment of 32 students in pre-K through grade five to Fort Kent Elementary School, about 35 miles down the road.
There are four elementary schools in SAD 27. In addition to the building in St. Francis, there are schools in Fort Kent, Wallagrass and Eagle Lake. The district high school and central office are in Fort Kent.
Enrollment numbers districtwide have been steadily dropping over the past several years, according to Superintendent Tim Doak.
There are currently 962 students in SAD 27, a number that is down 10 percent over the last four years, Doak said. That trend is showing no signs of ending, he said.
That, coupled with property tax valuations creeping up in district towns creates what Doak calls a “perfect storm” with regard to state funding of education, which calculates what each district gets based on a per pupil basis and the assumption that higher property values means taxpayers can foot more of the bill on the local level.
“It is disastrous for districts like ours,” Doak said at an informational meeting last week in Fort Kent. “We are not going to get out of this.”
St. Francis is the smallest elementary school of the four and is operating at 19 percent of total building capacity as of last spring, according to information supplied by the district.
By comparison, the school in Eagle Lake is at 34 percent, Wallagrass at 50 percent and Fort Kent at 69 percent.
Closing St. Francis would save $160,000, according to district administrators.
“You can see the numbers,” Doak said this week. “You can see the problems if we don’t start being leaner and smarter.”
Leaner and smarter is something district residents agree upon, but just how to get there is the question, especially for some effected by closing the St. Francis school.
“I just hope they look at things with their hearts,” Cara Merrill, St. Francis resident, said over the weekend.
Merrill, who has been a substitute teacher in the St. Francis school and works for the district in the adult education office, has a niece and nephew who would travel the 35 miles to Fort Kent if the school closes, and she fears how that could affect their education.
“You are sacrificing the education of little people,” Merrill said. “How can a 6-year-old be on a bus for two hours a day and still be productive in the classroom?”
That was one of the questions raised by a small group gathered at Two Rivers Lunch in Allagash Saturday morning.
Allagash has its own tiny district — SAD 10 — that recently voted to pull out of a cooperative alternative organizational structure, or AOS, with SAD 27, effectively dissolving AOS 95.
The town tuitions its 17 students to SAD 27 at a cost of $9,000 per high schooler and $7,500 per elementary school student in addition to funding a late bus to transport those students.
Should St. Francis close, that would mean an extra 30 or 40 miles for some of Allagash’s youngest residents.
“This is not a good idea at all,” Colleen McBreairty, pre-K and kindergarten teacher at St. Francis, said. “Putting a 5-year-old on a bus for 75 miles a day means they are on that bus three hours every day by the time the bus gets to Fort Kent and back here.”
That long ride, she said, would put the youngsters in a disadvantaged learning situation and already tired before the school day even begins.
Some elementary school students are already on the bus by 6:30 a.m., McBreairty said.
“I see the bus go by in the dark every morning,” Allagash resident Darlene Kelly Dumond said. “I see those little heads through the bus windows.”
Mary Beth Jackson, district art and technology teacher, said she fears the budget talks could pit one school community against another.
“I travel throughout the district and each school is unique in its own way,” Jackson said. “One is not better than the other.”
No one is saying the move to close St. Francis is based on any quality of education concerns, Doak said this week. Rather, it is based on the numbers.
“They have been taking away from St. Francis for years,” McBreairty said. “Grade by grade by grade.”
The school currently has a building principal one day a week and at this week’s district informational meeting, the idea was floated to prepare school lunches for the St. Francis school in Fort Kent and then deliver them to eliminate the need for full cafeteria staff.
“That is just ludicrous,” McBreairty said, who pointed out SAD 27 administrators last week said even with the $1.8 million in cuts, taxes will be going up an average of 10 percent districtwide.
“If taxes are going up anyway, why close our school?” she said.
Closing the school, according to St. Francis resident and business owner Robert “Bobby” McBreairty Sr. would help stem the rise of those taxes.
“We have to do something,” McBreairty said, adding he pays around $25,000 in property and business tax. “It may mean closing that school and people may need to realize if they want to move to St. Francis or Allagash, they can’t have kids.”
Stressing he is “all for the kids,” McBreairty said the time has come for some tough choices with regards to the school budget and property taxes.
“I know it’s tough,” he said. “But we have to do something here and solve these problems.”
Two fellow St. Francis residents, who spoke on condition their names were not used, agreed with McBrairty.
“It does not make sense to keep the St. Francis school open,” one resident said. “We can’t afford it.”
The idea of combining grades is not workable, the resident said. “It does not work. You can’t have children of different ages in the same classroom.”
McBreairty said multi-age classrooms are effective, but does worry that a district plan of increasing those class sizes to 25 or 30 students could affect discipline and education.
The decision to close the St. Francis school rests with the 12-member SAD 27 school board who will vote on the issue at its May 30 meeting.
Eight of the 12 members must vote to close the school for the measure to pass, according to Doak.
It then goes to the residents of St. Francis as a referendum vote. Residents can override the board’s decision, but must then come up with the entire $160,000 themselves.
St. Francis will hold an informational meeting on the school closure issue on April 29.