The impact of the poor economy has left schools all over Maine struggling to make ends meet, and Tuesday night, Feb. 8, the reality of that situation hit home, particularly for Frankfort residents.

After hearing public comments and discussing the closure of the Frankfort Elementary School, the RSU 20 school board voted 12-4 (with board members Joyce Chamberlin, Orya Shomron, Twyler Webster and Denise Dakin opposed) to begin the process of closing the school. As part of the motion, the district would aim to close the school by June 30 to realize an estimated annual savings of $370,000.

Because the board uses weighted votes based on the population of each community to determine the outcome of a motion, Assistant Superintendent John McDonald tallied the vote to determine whether the motion passed or failed.

Once the numbers were figured, McDonald announced the motion passed, and had garnered enough votes to meet the state-required, two-thirds majority.

Using the weighted vote system, McDonald said the vote showed a tally of 12,565 votes in favor of school closure and 3,547 votes against the measure. McDonald said the minimum votes needed for the motion to pass was 10,740.

While directors stressed the vote marked the beginning of a lengthier process the state requires in order for a district to close a school — which will include a referendum where Frankfort residents will weigh in on the issue — the decision was met with a great deal of emotion. Many of the 80-plus residents in the audience immediately stood and left the meeting following the vote, with one woman offering the comment, “We’ve heard enough.”

Another audience member was heard telling Superintendent Bruce Mailloux he could use the savings from the school closure to increase his salary.

The hallway outside the Belfast Area High School band room, where the meeting was held, was filled with people still reacting to the board’s decision. Some cried, while others comforted them with words of assurance and hugs. Others, like Frankfort resident Seth Brown, expressed frustration.

Brown said while he understands the board’s vote is the first step in a longer process, he said he feels “sad” and “disappointed” the decision was made before directors formed a more comprehensive plan for closing a budget gap directors said could exceed $2 million.

Brown said he is concerned on many levels, and speaking about Tuesday night’s decision, Brown said he feels the board sees the district’s financial needs as more important than providing quality education.

“The words ‘kids’ and ‘education’ were never talked about during that whole discussion,” he said. “It was all about money.”

But as board member and finance committee member Gerald Reid noted, the time has come to make some tough choices in order to fill an estimated $1.8 million budget gap, which Reid said is likely to swell above $2 million once the increasing prices of items such as fuel and insurance are considered.

Reid said state and federal grants and other types of funding are not as available as they have been in the past, and the $1.8 million shortfall represents six percent of the RSU’s current operating budget.

Reid also told the crowd that a board vote to close the school does not signify a done deal.

“This is actually the front end of a process,” he said. “There is quite a series of steps that has to happen.”

According to a memorandum prepared by Mailloux and members of the finance committee, state law dictates that after the board votes to close a school, the district must then submit a school closure report to the state education commissioner. Mailloux noted that Gov. Paul LePage has yet to make a selection for that position, which could delay the process.

Once paperwork is completed — a process that Mailloux said could span more than a month — a referendum vote regarding closure of the school will take place in Frankfort. Additional steps following the referendum are dependent on the outcome of the vote, but Reid explained that even if Frankfort residents opt to keep the school open, there are costs associated with that choice.

Reid said should Frankfort voters decide to keep the school open, the town is required to pay the savings offset to the district. And that still would not insure the school will remain open in the future.

“The board could bring it back for another vote,” said Reid, adding that after two re-votes, the district could close the school regardless how Frankfort residents decide.

Mailloux said there are several options available to the district in terms of what would happen to the building in the event school closure is finalized, but he stressed there is not a plan to dispose of the school at this time.

Mailloux said the district could opt to maintain ownership of the building should the board find the building may be needed in the future. The district could also sell the building back to the town, and if the town does not want it, the district could put the building on the market.

“The proceeds would have to be divided between the district towns to reduce their assessments,” Mailloux said.

Reid also assured the crowd the recommendation to close the school was not a snap decision, and said the board members recognize the magnitude of what is being proposed.

“No one on this board enjoys having to deal with these unpleasant financial matters,” said Reid. “… The cuts will still have to be made, folks.”

And Reid said more cuts will be needed, even if the school is closed, in order to build a budget that does not bring a sizable tax increase for district residents.

Board members and school officials began the process of deciding which school to recommend for closure by looking at all RSU 20 schools. They said some schools — such as the district’s two high schools and two middle schools — were quickly eliminated from the list, and said some elementary schools, such as the Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast, were also eliminated from the list early on due to large enrollment numbers.

The recommendation to close the Frankfort school was based on three factors, Reid said. The proximity of the school to alternate schools that would absorb Frankfort students, including Nickerson School in Swanville and Stockton Springs Elementary School, was one factor. The Swanville and Stockton Springs schools can easily accommodate additional students, Reid said, and while the need to change bus routes presents a challenge, Reid said avoiding long bus rides for students was not “an unmanageable problem.”

Maintenance costs were another factor, Reid said. He noted Swanville and Stockton Springs elementary schools have each had recent upgrades, but the Frankfort school is in need of a storage building and classroom doors and locks need replacing. The storage building is needed, Mailloux explained, because the Frankfort school is in violation of local building codes because food service and maintenance supplies are being stored in a boiler room and connecting hallway. The storage space alone is expected to cost $97,000, and the classroom upgrades could come in at an additional cost of up to $22,000.

The third factor considered was the remaining debt service, Reid said. While remaining debt for Nickerson School renovations is at $423,460 and the Stockton school is carrying $298,544 in debt, the Frankfort school has no debt service. As noted on the memorandum from Mailloux and the finance and budget committees, debt service for a school must still be paid whether a school is closed or not.

The board’s finance committee made the recommendation to close the school at a meeting Thursday, Feb. 3. That recommendation was made after the full board requested the finance committee to investigate the possibility of closing a school and to make a recommendation on which school might be closed.

The issue is not a new one, noted RSU 20 Board Chairwoman Jean Dube, as the board considered closing a school during budget deliberations early last year.

“Everything we’ve talked about here tonight, we’ve talked about last year and the year before,” she said. “… As the years go on, the squeeze is getting tighter and tighter.”

Dakin noted the district’s alternative high school, BCOPE, has a budget of $311,000 and serves 43 students.

“Is there room in any of our facilities to house the 43 students at BCOPE?” she asked.

Webster asked why that option was not considered before the Frankfort school.

Mailloux said the students could be housed at either Belfast Area High School or Searsport District High School, but he added, “BCOPE is there for a reason.”

Reid said all cost-saving cuts are on the table, and told Dakin that BCOPE will likely be examined next.

Dakin, as well as some members of the audience, also stated staff contracts have yet to be finalized, and former SAD 34 and SAD 56 employees are still not working on the same salary scales and seniority lists as defined as part of the school consolidation process.

Mailloux said the contract issue is being addressed, and that it is a “shared mission on both sides of the table.”

Shomron asked how much time the board had before a decision had to be made on school closure, and Reid noted that because of the process involved, the decision should be made sooner rather than later. Mailloux said the option is there for the board a month down the road, but the state must sign off on the closure in order to have the exact savings from the closure reflected in the budget.

Shomron urged the board to hold off on deciding the fate of the Frankfort school, and encouraged his fellow board members to explore alternative revenue streams.

“Knowing we need to save in the budget is not equivalent to knowing that we have to cut a school from RSU 20,” he said.

Shomron’s comments were met with applause from the audience, but board member Peggy Andrews expressed frustration about board members who are on the finance committee but fail to attend meetings and then sound off on decisions the committee makes.

“That is very frustrating,” she said.

It was evident that those who attended Tuesday’s meeting were also frustrated at the situation, and many expressed such during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Linda Bowe, principal of the Frankfort and Stockton Springs Elementary Schools, said the Frankfort school community is one where parents are heavily involved, and she described the Frankfort school as “a gem.”

“I consider this a huge loss for the Frankfort community, and also for RSU 20,” she said.

Stockton Springs Elementary teacher Jan Austin criticized the board for recommending a school closure without first finalizing staff contracts.

“How can we have one RSU with two separate contracts and two separate seniority lists?” she asked.

Brown also addressed the board, stating that he and his wife chose to move to Frankfort because they wanted their children to have the small school experience, and said the news of the potential school closure hit his community hard. He said the previous night’s Parent Teacher Group meeting in Frankfort was unproductive, as the members talked about their school in a way that he likened to how a grieving family talks about a lost loved one.

“If your child was attending this school, what would your decision be on this issue?” he asked.

Gabriel Baker of Frankfort estimated that since the expected savings from the closure equates to just over one percent of the current operating budget, keeping the Frankfort school open would bring the average property tax bill up by $25. He said he would not mind paying the extra amount if it meant keeping the school open, and urged the board to table further discussions on the topic.

Searsport District High School student and Frankfort resident Zach Parker said he felt closing a school should be a last resort, and based on discussions with his neighbors and town officials, he predicted Frankfort voters would not vote in favor of the recommendation.

Parker suggested the district consider alternatives like cutting all budget lines by five percent and moving to larger class sizes.

Parker also said his neighbors feel that the board make-up is to the advantage of the former SAD 34 towns, mainly Belfast. That is part of what is driving a continued effort in Frankfort to join SAD 22, Parker said.

“That is only because they fear one thing happening, the closure of our school by RSU 20,” he said.

Some in the crowd expressed concern about how services for students with special needs could change if the remaining district schools absorbed those additional students, while others urged the board to take additional time to consider the recommendation.

At the end of the memorandum from Mailloux and the committees, Mailloux explained that while the decision to close a school is a tough one, the need to face the district’s financial situation is a pressing one.

“We become attached to our school, it is often the center of the community. They are, however, expensive to operate, particularly when the student population declines. We are, without question, in a tough economic time that requires tough decisions,” stated Mailloux. “The Board of Directors must act to maintain the best possible educational opportunities for its’ students, while at the same time, making responsibly fiscal decisions to support those opportunities. Not an easy job.”