Stockton Springs parents reeling over vote to move students outElementary school would become early child development center
Belfast — At an emotionally charged meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 26, the Regional School Unit (RSU) 20 Board of Directors voted to move the remaining students from Stockton Springs Elementary School to Searsport and use the building for a pre-K program.
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Brian Carpenter explained that the building would be re-purposed to house an all-day pre-K program, one that would likely be operated through Broadreach Family and Community Services. The program would replace two half-time programs that are currently provided at Searsport Elementary School, Carpenter said.
The decision came after a lengthy discussion and was the result of a split vote among the board members. Directors Alexa Schweikert, Jason Perkins, Dorothy Odell, Alan Wood, Charles Poirier, Stephen Hopkins, Gerry Reid, Debora Riley, Tony Bagley and Denise Dakin voted for the motion, while Stephanie Wade, Dean Anderson, Eric Carter, Valerie Mank, Percy King and Sharon Catus voted against it. Director Tony Swebilius abstained.
Several Stockton Springs parents were in attendance Tuesday and expressed displeasure at the recommendation.
Parent Kris Braga said she felt encouraged that directors reached out to Stockton Springs residents to find the best future use for the school at the start of the year. Now, she said, she is saddened to learn those communications between the board and the residents did not result in the outcome most at those meetings favored — keeping grade-school-age students in their home community.
"This is not a good plan for our children and this is not a good plan for the town of Stockton Springs," she said.
Braga also questioned whether the district could legally move the remaining students out of the school — it was formerly a pre-K-5 school and now serves grades 1-3 — without holding a vote in Stockton Springs to formally close the school. Braga said she contacted the state Department of Education and raised that question, and said she was told the state would not consider a program run by Broadreach, a private nonprofit, because it does not qualify as a public school program.
Later in the meeting, Carpenter said it is the state's position that the Broadreach program would be considered a public school program as long as the district has a contract with the organization to provide those services.
Director Reid said the district could confirm that detail with a follow-up call to the state, and later in the meeting he said that the vote to change the use of the school would hinge on whether the state lent its approval to such a move.
Ross Cottrell, another parent from Stockton Springs, also criticized directors for choosing a slightly different route than the four possible actions spelled out at previous information sessions regarding the future of the school. The four options that were presented at the time of those sessions included closing the school, returning the school to a pre-K-5 school by bringing all Stockton Springs students to Stockton Springs Elementary School and combining grades. The next two options discussed were restoring the school to a pre-K-5 by returning all students from Searsport Elementary School, using combined grades and expanding use of the building with a for-profit 3-year-old program or making the school a pre-K-2, with grades 3-5 going to Searsport Elementary School and adding the 3-year-old program.
"This is not one of the four courses of action that was proposed to the community of Stockton Springs," he said. "...It's kind of going around the back door."
Reid, who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said the committee brought the recommendation to the board as a result of several factors that have arisen in recent years. Due to declining enrollments, the board originally moved to close Frankfort Elementary, but put that on hold when it became clear that the intended to withdraw from the RSU. The next building that lent itself to possible closure or some change in use was the Stockton Springs school.
Were the issue purely about numbers, Reid said, the board would likely be discussing closing the building, but because there was interest on the part of the community to "keep that presence alive in town," the committee brought forth the recommendation that was agreed upon Tuesday.
Reid said that arrangement would bring $190,800 in savings for the district over the current situation, and stated that potential revenue from the pre-K program could range from $100,000 to $150,000 per year.
Carpenter said it came down to the cost of maintaining the status quo versus finding savings where it is possible to do so. Director Dakin, who also lives in Stockton Springs, said her town has about $500,000 worth of unpaid back property taxes on the books. While she said she grew up in town and loves the small school where her own child was educated, Dakin said she recognized the need for some kind of change.
"I will not raise my hand to close that school, but that's not the question on the table," she said. "We do have a hard decision to make."
Director Swebilius of Morrill said that since he was a member of his town's committee exploring the possibility of withdrawing from the RSU, he would likely abstain, because he didn't feel right voting in favor of the motion knowing his town maybe leaving the district.
Catus delivered the most emotional commentary, telling her fellow directors that, while she appreciated the board's coming to her town to seek opinions, she was unhappy with the direction the board took Tuesday night.
"It disturbs me that we put courses of action forth that seemed to be pipe dreams," she said tearfully.
Catus said the communities voted to invest funds to refurbish the building about four years ago, and the students there have consistently scored high on standardized tests in the last five years.
In terms of the way the board approached bringing Tuesday night's recommendation, Catus reacted by stating, "I think we could have done it better."
Board Chairman Bagley said more financial hardship was coming, though, as preliminary numbers show state revenue to the district dropping by about $573,500 for the next school year. That loss, in addition to the previously projected budget gap, could mean directors will be looking to cut between $2 million and $3 million from the coming year's budget.
"If we've got to come up with two to three million dollars to keep the schools running, there are two places to get it," said Bagley, stating that the only lines left to reduce are those dealing with buildings or staff. "If you cut two million dollars' worth of staff, there's not going to be any education left for any kid."