ST. FRANCIS, Maine — The vast majority of about 75 area residents who packed the cafeteria/gym area of the St. Francis Elementary School Tuesday night were there to oppose an SAD 27 proposal to close the school.
“St. Francis will be losing a good part of the heart of this town if it’s closed down and mothballed,” said one man, who seemed to echo the sentiments of most attendees.
Many of the questions directed at Superintendent Tim Doak during the two-hour special meeting indicated a priority to keep open at all costs the school in this community of about 485 residents. The spirited audience greeted comments to that effect with loud applause and cheers.
“Cut programs,” said another attendee. “It’s hard, but this is hard. Cut computers, cut paper, do what you have to.”
Doak explained that the school board is considering the possibility of closing the school to help cover a $1.7 million funding shortfall in the 2014-2015 budget.
The possible closure is the result of a double whammy from rising property valuations while enrollments are declining across the district, which has resulted in reductions in state assistance for SAD 27.
“It’s the worst thing that can happen to you to fund schools,” Doak said. He said the district lost $1.5 million last year and was looking at a loss of $1.7 million this year, and on Thursday, he will be speaking with teachers about seven to 10 possible layoffs, due to the financial crisis.
Even with the closure of the school and with zero increases in the budget, district taxpayers will still have to pay more, due to the reductions in state assistance, according to administrators. However, Doak and SAD 27 Chief Financial Officer Lucie Tabor said closing the St. Francis Elementary School would make those tax increases smaller.
“Just $37,” said one man, in reference to the estimated annual increase in taxes on a $50,000 property should SAD 27 decide to keep the school open.
The school in St. Francis, which serves prekindergarten to grade five, is the smallest of four elementary schools in the district and is operating at 19 percent of total building capacity as of last spring, according to information supplied by the district. Administrators estimated the school population, which serves pupils from Allagash to St. Francis, at 27 next year. Should the St. Francis school be closed, those youngsters next fall would be bused about 35 miles to Fort Kent Elementary School.
One woman Tuesday night voiced a concern that the district was targeting St. Francis for cuts, while another criticized the practice of sending neighboring St. John students to Fort Kent to go to school. “Make them come here where they belong,” she said to Doak, in response to the assertion that it was low enrollment numbers driving the discussion about closing the school.
When Doak responded that it was the parents’ decision to send their children from St. John to Fort Kent, she responded, “Aw, cry me a river,” which drew laughter from the crowd, but elicited a heated response from Doak in which he told attendees, “I work hard for this district; I would do nothing to hurt your kids. I’m not here to be made a fool of.”
He said that the two toughest decisions a school board can face are whether to expel a student and whether to close a school.
All but two of the school board members were present at the meeting. School board member Jason Drolet, representing Ward 2 in Eagle Lake, told the audience, “It’s not going to be any better next year. We need to collectively understand that. People are moving out, and they aren’t bringing their kids back,” he said.
Doak said that the County as a whole is critically short in the 18-44-year-old age group, an essential factor in sustaining the economy of an area.
Opposition from St. Francis residents sets up the possibility that, if the SAD 27 school board members recommend closing the elementary school, St. Francis community members will bring the issue to a town referendum vote. If the small community chooses to keep the school open, resident taxpayers would then be responsible for paying their SAD 27 share without state assistance, which is an estimated $225,000.
Several audience-driven proposals for cutting money from the school budget without closing the school involved using smaller buses and vans to transport the children.
Doak dismissed these, saying, “I’m not putting a kid on a bus that can roll over.” He described a situation in which an athletic team had been traveling in a van when the van went off the road, and said that SAD 27 currently has one of the most efficient bus systems in the state of Maine, in the second-largest district by area in the state.
St. Francis residents voiced concerns about the length of the bus ride if the district closed the elementary school. Doak said that one option was nonstop bus service between Fort Kent and Allagash and another for St. Francis. This would shorten the ride by an estimated half hour.
One unpopular budget proposal involved eliminating the cafeteria staff at the St. Francis school.
The staff at Fort Kent Community High School would prepare food and then ship it to the school in St. Francis. In the face of clear opposition to this proposal after the previous informational meeting and in the face of jeers from the audience in St. Francis on Tuesday night, Doak said, “If the building stays open, it will have a cook. You are going to get a cook.” His response elicited a round of applause.
Some audience members also questioned Doak’s commitment to class sizes of 25 or less, with one woman saying, “Most of us grew up with 30 kids in a class.”
Doak said, “I can’t see it in this day and age.”
Doak said that giving the outlying schools back to all their respective communities is a possibility as well, but the district has yet to calculate those budgetary numbers.
SAD 27 board members were to consider the budget, including the school closure, beginning at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, at the Fort Kent Community High School gym.