A student walks by a lobster fishing mural at Deer Isle – Stonington High School in Deer Isle, Maine, in this 2014 BDN file photo. Residents in the two towns voted overwhelmingly Tuesday, Jan. 29, in a nonbinding referendum to keep the high school open and separate from the neighboring elementary school. Credit: Brian Feulner

In a non-binding referendum Tuesday, residents of Deer Isle and Stonington overwhelmingly supported keeping their high school open and separate from the neighboring elementary school.

In the vote, 971 people from the two towns said the school should be kept open and 65 said it should be closed — a ratio of 15 to one. In a separate question, 786 residents of the two towns said the high school programs should be kept in their own building but 231 residents said the high school and elementary school programs should at least be partially combined under one roof.

Declining enrollment at the towns’ shared high school, increased operating expenses and more than $1 million in needed capital improvements at both the high school and elementary school have been cited as reasons for considering an overhaul of the towns’ school system. If the high school were to close, the towns likely would have to pay tuition to send their high school students to other high schools off-island in Blue Hill, Bucksport or Ellsworth, which are between 16 and 32 miles away.

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Since the early 2000s, combined enrollment at the two schools has declined from 525 to 311, with only 100 or so enrolled at the high school level, according to local officials. A report in the Ellsworth American weekly newspaper last summer indicated the high school had more than 200 students during the 1999-2000 academic year.

Over the next 15 years, the year-round populations of the two island towns — which are accessible only by boat or by the Deer Isle-Sedgwick bridge — also are expected to decrease, local officials have said.

A committee comprising local school and municipal officials and residents released a report in December that said academic outcomes at the school also have been disappointing, which in recent years led to difficulty in approving budgets for the school.

“Local businesses tell us that some students entering the workforce are lacking some basic skills,” the committee wrote in the report. “Some students entering college find it necessary to take remedial courses before enrolling in regular college courses.”

Chris Elkington, superintendent of the island schools, said Wednesday that the voting results show that despite the challenges the high school has been facing, local residents recognize that for the two towns to have a future, the school has to stay open and its academic performance needs to improve.

“Throughout the last eight months it was made clear to me through multiple one-on-one interactions with parents and community members that they also want our students to demonstrate improved academic results,” Elkington wrote in an email. “Over the next year we will need to continue to increase parent and community involvement in planning and next steps if we expect to make creative improvements.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....