RSU 20 administrators took some heat from a Stockton Springs town official Tuesday, March 27 about a piece of the proposed 2012-13 budget package that calls for moving Stockton Springs Elementary students to Searsport Elementary.

Directors discussed the proposed $33,884,058 budget for 2012-13 as a full board for the first time Tuesday when they convened for the regular meeting at Searsport District High School. At that time, RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux stressed that the move of SSES students, as well as a proposal to move third-graders at Drinkwater Elementary School in Northport to Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast, are no more than suggestions.

“That does not mean we’re closing schools,” said Mailloux.

But Stockton Springs selectman Leslie Cosmano said the idea of moving SSES students anywhere in the district came as a surprise to her when she first heard it at the March 13 board meeting.

That’s when Assistant Superintendent John McDonald and Finance Committee Chairman Gerry Reid presented three options for cutting costs through either closing or changing the use of some district buildings. That proposal, titled “A High Quality Sustainable School System,” included an option to close or re-purpose the SSES building, as well as Ames School in Searsmont, Weymouth School in Morrill, Nickerson School in Swanville, East Side Elementary in Belfast and Frankfort Elementary. Instead, according to a printout of the March 13 presentation, those students would attend one of four elementary schools — SES, CASS, Drinkwater School and a regional elementary school that would be housed at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast. That option also included the establishment of one regional high school and middle school.

Tuesday night, Cosmano said she was concerned about the inclusion of SSES in the proposed elementary school shuffle because that plan differed from what Mailloux told her and fellow selectmen in December.

When Mailloux came to a meeting of the selectmen to discuss the budget, Cosmano said she continuously asked if Stockton Springs residents should worry about losing their local school.

“I guess I was like a bulldog after a bone; I wanted answers,” she said.

At that time, Cosmano said, Mailloux told her there were no plans to close SSES.

After Tuesday night’s meeting, Mailloux said when he addressed Stockton Springs selectmen there were no proposals to close any schools because budget talks had not yet begun.

But at the meeting, Cosmano said she felt as though she gave false information to taxpayers in her town when she told them SSES would remain open, information she said was based on the conversation Mailloux had with selectmen.

“Between December and March there was absolutely zero communication between the administrators in our district and the selectmen,” said Cosmano. “… The position we are now in as selectmen is that we have to go back to the residents and say, ‘We did not tell you the truth’.”

Stockton Springs resident Sharon Catus also expressed frustration with the possible closure of SSES. Catus said she understood the district could not continue to operate efficiently with six elementary schools that each serve fewer than 100 students, but asked the board to consider how the loss of SSES would impact the town.

“I get that that’s not sustainable,” she said. “You need to understand, however, that those of us in Stockton Springs do have feelings.”

Catus asked the board to consider grant writing and fund raising as a way to make up some of the district’s expenses, such as the proposed increase in the line for purchasing library books. Catus suggested the district turn to sources like the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation as a way to cover such expenses, and also engage in fundraising to meet larger expenses in the future.

Catus concluded with an emotional plea to the board.

“You seem to have swept the community of Stockton Springs underneath the rug,” she said. “… Please, be honest with us. Communicate with us. Give us some respect.”

SSES Guidance Counselor Julie Page encouraged the board to move in a “speedy manner” if SSES is chosen for closure or re-purposing so the community will have adequate time to adjust to the change.

“The students, the staff and their families will need to have time to grieve the loss of their school,” said Page.

Later in the meeting, Reid said he accepted the comments from the public about the desire for better communication with the board and district administrators.

“We have to do better,” said Reid.

Reid also stated, however, that administrators had come up with a long term plan that took the form of the school reorganization concept that was pitched last spring, an idea that Reid said was not well received.

Now the board must come up with a budget for the next school year, and must do so while also closing an estimated $2.5 million budget gap.

“We need to make one or two tough calls, folks,” he said. “We’re going to have a tax increase next year and a sizable one. The question is, how sizable?”

The only way to bring the cost of operating the district down by a significant amount, Reid said, is by looking at buildings and class sizes.

In regard to the issue about whether SSES will close, be used for another purpose or remain open, Reid said the district could have done better to convey the fact that all decisions about the budget are still up for debate.

“We have probably inadvertently given mixed signals,” said Reid. “… But we haven’t decided anything.”

Reporter Tanya Mitchell can be reached at 338-3333 or tmitchell@villagesoup.com.