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MSAD 1 board votes to end harvest break

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Under a new policy approved Wednesday evening, starting in 2019 Presque Isle High School will no longer break for students to work on area potato farms.

The MSAD 1 board of directors voted 9-7 in favor of a proposal to end the harvest break beginning the fall after next. One board member, Jane James abstained from the vote, citing a conflict of interest.

Under the new policy, in 2019 the high school will no longer take the three week break. High school students will be able to work on area farms for up to three weeks, with permission from parents and a letter of support from a farmer. In 2020, the amount of time students can take off from school will be limited to 2 weeks.

The decision follows years of debate, declining participation in farm-related work during the break and concerns about a significant number of students not working at all.

According to a survey by the high school, 14 percent of students worked at area farms during the harvest break last year, 8 percent worked at the MSAD 1 educational farm and 35 percent worked in non-farm jobs. Some 43 percent of the students apparently did not work or engage in community service, raising concerns that they are going unsupervised and potentially at risk of getting into trouble.

Currently, SAD 1 elementary and middle school students follow a traditional school year calendar while high school students start classes before Labor Day and break for three weeks during harvest.

The harvest break costs about $70,000 more a year for additional transportation and school operating expenses to accommodate the differing elementary, middle and high school schedules.

In deliberations before a vote on the proposal, board members voiced a variety of opinions.

Board member Robert Cawley of Presque Isle, who voted in favor of the new policy, noted that only a minority of students currently work on area potato farms during the break.

“Fourteen percent of the student body works on farms during the harvest break, so we’re making a decision based on 14 percent of a population,” Cawley said. “It’s been heading down over the years. I know it’s going to impact farmers. But it’s not going to impact all of them.”

Board member Brandon Roope, a farmer from Presque Isle, voted against the change. He suggested that the district could adopt a two week harvest break that includes the whole district, but the board did not consider the proposal.

Carol Bell, who also voted against the change, suggested trying Roope’s idea for a year. Bell said that ending the break while excusing some students from class would not be workable in the long-term.

“They tried it in Houlton and it did not work,” Bell said. “You can ask anybody in this room, they’re not going to let their kids out of school for three weeks.”

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