January 19, 2020
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Rockland-area parents call for saving small schools

OWLS HEAD, Maine — Parents of students who attend the Owls Head Central and Gilford Butler schools were ready Tuesday night to circle the wagons to keep their community education centers open.

“We have a sense of community that you can’t put a price on,” said Carolyn Philbrook, whose children and grandchildren attended the local schools.

More than 50 people turned out for the meeting in Owls Head with their Regional School Unit 13 representatives in response to the possibility that the two schools could be on the chopping block next year.

RSU 13 board members Sally Carleton of Owls Head and Christine Curtis of South Thomaston told the gathering that the full board would be looking at all schools in the six communities in the district. They were there simply to bring feedback to the full board, they said.

Owls Head and Gilford Butler are among the schools potentially to be closed because of their smaller enrollments and the poorer conditions of the buildings.

Parents, however, argued that smaller schools were superior.

“If it’s not broken, why fix it?” said former Rockland Mayor Tom Molloy, who also taught for many years at the South School in Rockland and Owls Head. “I know the parents here will circle the wagons.”

Charmen Spearing of Owls Head said the district needs to look beyond just costs.

“We need to stop looking at big box schools,” Spearing said. “We need to look at how wonderful the school is, how wonderful the teachers are and how wonderful a community we have.”

Parents mentioned that the test scores of students at the two smaller schools are superior to those of the larger South School in Rockland. Twenty students from Rockland are enrolled at Gilford Butler at their parents’ request and 12 Rockland students are enrolled at Owls Head.

Jesse Butler of Rockland said his child attends Owls Head because it is a much better-run school than South School.

Amy Libby said she moved her children to the smaller schools from Rockland because she did not feel they were safe at the larger Rockland elementary school. She said in one classroom a teacher would not pull out scissors because of concerns about the actions of a student. She said some teachers don’t feel safe in the school.

Doug Curtis of Rockland said the board should create a task force that includes residents from all the communities in RSU 13 to look at the buildings.

State law requires a referendum and voter approval for an elementary school in a town or city to be closed. If residents were to override the vote of the school board, however, the town would be responsible for the additional costs of running the school in that community.

Owls Head serves third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students mainly from Owls Head and South Thomaston. The school, which opened in September 1952, has an enrollment of 79 students. The Gilford Butler School serves students in kindergarten, first and second grades. The school, which opened in 1954, has an enrollment of 85.

RSU 13 has been struggling to reduce costs. In March, Superintendent Lew Collins proposed consolidating Rockland District Middle School and the Thomaston Grammar School, but that was rejected by the board.

However, board members acknowledged that future consolidations were likely.

RSU 13 consists of Rockland, Owls Head, South Thomaston, Thomaston, St. George and Cushing.

Stephen Betts can be contacted at sbetts@bangordailynews.com or @Scoopbetts.

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