FORT KENT, Maine — “Tonight was not the night,” SAD 27 school board member John Martin of Eagle Lake said about the failure of a motion to close the St. Francis Elementary School.
While seven of the 12 board members voted Wednesday night to close the school, the motion needed a two-thirds majority, or eight votes, to pass.
“The closing of St. Francis would have destroyed the community,” said Martin, who voted to keep the school open.
“It’s a very tough thing,” said Superintendent Tim Doak. “Churches and schools [are] the two things most communities don’t want to lose.”
The vote was part of an ongoing effort to distribute the economic burden of an estimated $1.7 million shortfall in the 2014-2015 school budget.
“This is the first time that St. Francis has been on the block,” Martin said. Previously, school closure concerns in SAD 27 have centered on Wallagrass Elementary School.
“Next year, if nothing has changed, my vote will be different,” he warned.
The school in St. Francis, which serves prekindergarten to grade five, is the smallest of four elementary schools in the district and is operating at 19 percent of total building capacity as of last spring, according to information supplied by the district. Administrators estimated the school population, which serves pupils from Allagash to St. Francis, at 27 next year. Had the St. Francis school been closed, those youngsters next fall would have been bused about 35 miles to Fort Kent Elementary School.
While voting against closure, Martin said that the cost of operating the St. Francis school with only 27 students is too high and he recommended some sort of cooperative arrangement between the school district and the town.
Barbara McBrearity, an outspoken opponent of school closure during the previous evening’s discussion in St. Francis and a member of the school board in Allagash, pointed to a long tradition of valuing education above even monetary limitations in what has historically been an economically depressed area.
“Our parents went on buses by the hordes to Augusta to build the high school,” she said. “Education in Allagash was always a high priority.”
Colleen McBreairty, a teacher at St. Francis Elementary School, who lives in neighboring Allagash, said that one of the concerns of residents who want to close the school is the small size of classes, and the negative effect that may have on students’ social skills and ability to succeed in the world.
She disagreed with small-sized classes being a social or monetary disadvantage, saying, “One of the ladies on the school board came from a class of one. She went on to be postmaster.
“Teachers, doctors, lawyers — social skills didn’t deter us any,” she said.
Barbara McBrearity echoed her sentiment, saying that students from their small school all became “professionals of some sort.”
With the St. Francis elementary school remaining open for at least another year, school administrators will have to go back to the proverbial drawing board to create a budget.
While the school board previously sought a “zero increase” budget, Doak said the members are now considering a $258,000 increase to keep the St. Francis school open.
He said the board members also are discussing putting items back into the budget that school administrators and board members think would be better for the students.
“We will continue to provide a competitive, quality education in these tough times,” he said, and added, “If we are going to save money, we have to think differently.”
In an interview after the meeting, Doak suggested that Aroostook County schools as a whole need to consider an “education to industry” model, which provides a stronger focus on work and career for students in the educational system.
“School districts throughout the state of Maine have to be leaner and smarter,” he said. He agreed that an expanded budget which includes maintaining St. Francis Elementary School will likely result in a greater tax burden for local taxpayers in the upcoming year.
School board members at the meeting also voted to recommend elimination of the music program in grades seven through 12 and to move all sixth graders in the district to Fort Kent Elementary School in the next school year.