FORT KENT, Maine — The St. Francis Elementary School and its 34 students got a reprieve Monday night when the SAD 27 board of directors tabled a vote recommending the school be closed and the students bused to Fort Kent.
Instead, the board agreed to give a committee of St. Francis parents and residents until Jan. 8 to come up with a plan or plans to cut costs and bring in additional revenue at the school.
The full board will consider the committee’s findings when it revisits the issue of closing the school at its Jan. 19 meeting.
In the meantime, board members made it clear they wanted to be kept in the loop on that committee’s discussions with monthly updates.
“Don’t miss a month in reporting back to us,” Barry Ouellette, SAD 27 board chairman, said. “Remember, we can vote on closing [the school] anytime [and] that is not a threat, but we can’t let this keep dragging on.”
The school narrowly escaped board action to recommend closing it last spring as district officials looked for ways to cover an anticipated $1.7 million funding shortfall in the 2014-15 school budget.
Board members will meet with the St. Francis group Thursday night to share information that is hoped will lead to cost savings at the school, the smallest among the district’s four elementary schools.
The elementary schools in Eagle Lake and Wallagrass each have around 60 students and enrollment at the Fort Kent Elementary School is around 375, according to the district.
“We want to look for ways to help out so our school does not close,” St. Francis parent and resident Cindy Jandreau said after the meeting. “We are aware it still may happen.”
Jandreau said her group has several ideas that could bring in some funds to operate the building, which this year has an enrollment of 35 students in prekindergarten through grade five, three teachers and two support staff.
Jandreau declined to provide specifics of the plans, saying she wants to hear from district officials first if they are even viable and worth exploring.
“I am ecstatic they tabled the vote tonight,” she said. “We really want to try and keep our school open.”
At the meeting Ouellette said he was impressed by the effort shown by the St. Francis group and is open to any suggestions they may have.
At the same time, he said it does come down to dollars and cents.
“We do need to work together,” Ouellette said. “If we do recommend closure we will also recommend help and offer you some lifelines.”
On Tuesday SAD 27 Superintendent Tim Doak said closing the St. Francis Elementary School could save the district up to $223,000, based on calculations by the Maine Department of Education.
If the board does recommend closing the school, he said, the issue then goes to the department of education and ultimately to the voters in St. Francis.
If the town votes to keep the school open, they are responsible for the total cost of operating it.
“I am pleased with how it went [Monday] night,” Doak said. “We do have to work with these small communities to reach savings together [and] no one wants to come in to close down a school.”