Three days after the RSU 20 school board voted in favor of closing Frankfort Elementary School as a cost-saving measure, Superintendent Bruce Mailloux explained Friday, Feb. 11, the district is too financially strapped to consider less painful alternatives.

Mailloux said the board’s vote to close the elementary school is in response to the poor economy, noting the federal government is facing a national debt the trillions and all states are struggling to make ends meet. That means less federal and state funds are coming down the pipeline to support schools, he said, and a heavier financial burden is falling on taxpayers who are facing pay cuts and job losses themselves.

“We’re directly affected by what’s going on nationally and in the state,” said Mailloux. “For forever, it was, nobody wants to pay taxes. Well now, it isn’t a case of not wanting to pay taxes. Now, people cannot afford to.”

 

Falling off a cliff

RSU 20, like many other school systems across Maine, has been sustained for the last three years by federal economic recovery funds, commonly referred to collectively as stimulus money. For RSU 20, Mailloux said stimulus funds gave the district an annual boost of about $960,000, a boost that will not be there for the 2011-2012 budget. That’s why Mailloux referred to the coming school year as a “cliff year,” and he hasn’t been shy about offering warnings about that drop-off in federal funding during the past two years.

Mailloux said the loss of the $960,000 in federal money alone equates to what it costs the district to employ between 18 and 20 people and said a staff cut to that degree was not considered an option due to the impact on the quality of education students receive.

“If people sat down and looked at these numbers, they’d realize why we have to go out and look for alternatives,” said Mailloux.

RSU 20 has yet to see how much the state will offer the district in the form of General Purpose Aid, which is the annual funding schools receive each year. Mailloux noted when Gov. Paul LePage released details about his budget proposals Thursday, Feb. 10, the governor expressed a desire to increase school funding by more than $60 million during the next biennium. While Mailloux remains hopeful about the possible jump in state aid, he does not know what LePage’s proposal would mean for RSU 20.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

As it stands, Mailloux said, RSU 20 faces an estimated $2 million budget gap, based on known financial factors.

Rather than passing that shortfall on to financially struggling residents, or cutting staff and programs to the detriment of the district, Mailloux said school closure provides a way to create a savings of $370,000 while still keeping the educational experience the same for all RSU 20 students.

“If we can better utilize our facilities, we can maintain the programs and the quality of education that we have,” said Mailloux.

And as school board members stated to the 80-plus members of the public who attended the Tuesday, Feb. 8, board meeting, Mailloux said the recommendation from the finance and budget committee to close the Frankfort school did not come without careful consideration.

Last year, board members discussed closing an elementary school but eventually opted not to do so. Coming into the current budget-building process, Mailloux said, it became apparent the district needed to make some drastic changes to the way it operates.

 

Why Frankfort?

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. The proximity 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, Mailloux said.

Maintenance costs were another factor. 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 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, leading to the need for a storage building, which is expected to cost $97,000. Classroom upgrades could come in at an additional cost of up to $22,000.

The third factor considered was remaining debt service, Mailloux 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 in the memorandum from Mailloux and the finance and budget committee distributed at the Feb. 8 board meeting, 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 investigate the possibility of closing a school and to make a recommendation on which school might be closed.

“The residents of Frankfort might feel like we’re picking on them, but the decision was made logically,” said Mailloux.

 

‘Parents will have a role in process

Mailloux also said parents of Frankfort Elementary students will be invited to participate in the process of deciding what school their children will attend.

“We did hear very clearly that folks were concerned about [the length of] the bus rides,” Mailloux said.

Some parents may wish to have their children attend one school over another, and Mailloux said the district will work with parents to try to come up with a plan that takes their thoughts into consideration.

“We need to hear from them,” said Mailloux. “If the parents want them all to stay together, that’s an option.”

While Mailloux wants Frankfort parents to be part of the process of placing the students in new schools, the superintendent said there is a limit to what the district can allow.

“We just can’t say everybody’s got school choice,” he said, noting that would create a need for longer bus routes and increase transportation costs to the point that it would eliminate much of the savings that would be realized from the school shutdown.

Mailloux said he understands the degree to which communities value their neighborhood schools, but at some point, the district must put forth a budget taxpayers can afford to support. With cuts already made to sports programs and supply lines, Mailloux said it was time to consider closing a school in order to achieve that goal.

“We all agree we need to close a school, but ‘not in my back yard,’” said Mailloux. “Well, all that means is it’s going to be in somebody else’s back yard. That doesn’t solve the issue.”

 

Common contract remains a work in progress

Mailloux also spoke briefly about the ongoing effort to finalize staff contracts, particularly in the realm of bringing former SAD 56 and 34 staff into a single, common contract that addresses the differences in pay, and how and when raises are awarded.

The district has struggled with finalizing those contracts since the former SADs 34 and 56 consolidated to create RSU 20 in July 2009. Friday, Mailloux declined to comment on specifics about the negotiations but said the process is ongoing and he expressed optimism it will eventually result in a new staff contract.

“We’re going to get there, it just takes time,” he said.

 

‘Schools have weathered previous storms

Mailloux said the talks of possibly closing the Frankfort school were reminiscent of other storms the former SADs 34 and 56 had weathered in the past, particularly the closures of Anderson and Pierce schools in Belfast. Like the discussions that took place at the Feb. 8 board meeting, the consideration and eventual closings of the in-town elementary schools were just as emotionally charged. The same was the case with meetings in spring 2006, when the former SAD 34 school board was faced with a budget deficit that had climbed to more than $800,000 — a debt that was cleared up in about a year.

Mailloux said just as the district worked through the debt situation, locals have since adapted to the loss of the Anderson and Pierce schools and have welcomed the addition of Captain Albert Stevens School.

Mailloux said this is another example of hard times that school communities can, and must, overcome in order to offer students the best and most cost-effective educational experience. He urged members of the public to trust the people they elected to represent their communities, and to put their faith in the people who are charged with making the local education system work every day.

“We’re going to go through some rough times, but we’ll be okay,” said Mailloux. “And in the end, we’ll come out stronger and more efficient… Educators, by nature, are very resourceful.”