Wellington Elementary School to be closed?

13 years ago

By Joseph Cyr
Staff Writer

    HOULTON — Should the Wellington Elementary School be closed? That is the question the SAD 29 school board is starting to consider.
    At Monday night’s meeting, the school board gave the go-ahead to interim Superintendent Ray Freve to start gathering data on whether it would be cost effective to close the Wellington Elementary School in Monticello.
    Board member Sandra Wilkins asked how the topic of school closure came about in the first place. Freve explained the concept has likely been in the background for a number of years as enrollment continues to decline at the school.
    “It’s been in discussion in the past,” Freve said. “I suspect it [concerns] were probably generated by the budget crunch.”
    Before the school board meeting even finished, word of the talks began spreading. The social networking site Facebook featured a flurry of posts and a new group “Save Wellington School” was created with 12 members as of Tuesday morning.
    There are currently 56 students at Wellington Elementary School. Of this number, four are pre-K students; 17 are kindergarteners; nine are first graders; 14 are second graders and 12 are third graders.
    In comparison, Houlton Elementary School has 411 students, with 79 enrolled in pre-K; 92 in kindergarten; 83 in first grade; 76 in second grade; and 81 in third grade. The average class size at HES is about 19 students.
    “There has been talk of school closure at Wellington and you have to look at it,” Freve said. “If this is a serious review, we need to get started on it. I need to provide you [the board] with information.”
    Freve said he was looking for direction from the board as to whether he should pursue the fact-finding mission to answer some difficult and emotional questions.
    “Your enrollment shows a decrease,” he said. “But we need to know how it will impact staff? Where the kids will be housed? What is the cost of transportation? How much will it save you?”
    Any school closure plans have to first be validated by the Commissioner of Education. It then goes to a public hearing before then holding a public referendum to see if the voters in the district approve the closure.
    Freve said any closure would not be reflected in the budget that he was currently compiling for the fiscal year 2011-12.
    If the school were to remain open next year, the board will also have to find a new principal as current Principal/first grade teacher Nancy Wright is retiring at the end of the school year.
    Board member Jennifer Johnston said she was opposed to any talks of closing the Wellington school.
    “I’m totally opposed to it,” Johnston said. “I know you [Freve] are looking at numbers, but I am also looking at the kids. I wouldn’t be doing my job for the community [of Monticello] if I did not speak up.”
    Johnston said she felt closing the school would result in longer days and longer bus rides for pre-K and kindergarten students.
    “We’ve got a community that surrounds and supports this school,” she said. “I’m more worried about the impact to the children than I am the money. I don’t think you will save enough for us to really agree with taking the kids out of our community.”
    Board member Fred Grant said the group would not be doing their job if they did not at least consider the matter.
    “With the budget being the way that it is, we are going to have to make decisions,” Grant said. “For me, I don’t know what the cost-benefit analysis will be. We wouldn’t be good stewards of the entire district unless we get this information and be informed. At this point, we can’t make an informed decision on anything.”
    The board ultimately voted 8-1, with Johnston opposed to instruct Freve to begin gathering information on the possibility of closing the school.
    Another question that was not answered was what are the district’s plans for the harvest recess? About 50 individuals, including several potato farmers were in attendance for the meeting. The school board first discussed the harvest break at its February meeting, before tabling the matter.
    Freve said the district was waiting to see which direction the state was going to choose with the allowable number of variances each district could have in their schedule. Currently, SAD 29, SAD 14 (Danforth), CSD 9 (Southern Aroostook), SAD 70 (Hodgdon) and SAD 25 (Katahdin) must all follow a Region Two calendar that allows for nine uncommon days.
    However, there is a state initiative in the works, Freve said, to reduce the number of uncommon days to four, which would have a serious impact on the district’s calendar and factor in to its decision on whether to continue with the harvest break. Only SAD 29 and SAD 70 still let students out for harvest in the Region Two system.
    The next regular meeting of the SAD 29 board of directors will be Monday, April 4 at 6 p.m. in the superintendent’s office.