By Joseph Cyr
HOULTON — Wellington Elementary School appears to once again be on the chopping block.
The RSU 29 board of directors unanimously voted Monday evening to give Superintendent Mike Hammer the authority to move forward with the closure process, with little discussion by the board members.
The move, however, is not a vote to close the school. That vote will likely be made at the next regular meeting on April 7. Hammer planned to meet with the Monticello selectmen Wednesday evening.
Ten board members — Sandra Wilkins, Bruce Clark, Jeremiah Crockett, Liz Anderson, Tammy Goetsch, Lori Holmes, Jennifer Johnston, John Tribou, David Loendorf and Fred Grant — voted in favor of the motion. Board member Laurie Bartlett abstained from the vote.
The decision was a far cry from the talks held in April 2013. At that time the board was split on the matter and voted 6-4 to give Superintendent Hammer the go-ahead to explore the financial implications of closing the school.
Two subcommittees — finance and long-range planning — have been examining data collected by Hammer. Board chairman Grant, who serves on the finance committee, said Monday that it was the committee’s recommendation to move forward with closing Wellington Elementary School.
“This is not a situation that any district wants to go through,” Grant said. “The fact of the matter is we have a great school, but the picture for the state’s funding model is obscure every year. The way the state has been funding, the communities (in RSU 29) have had to pay more to get less.”
“We have gone back and forth on this issue,” Hammer added. “We looked at the figures of what it would cost to keep Wellington open. We’ve talked about enrollment needs.”
According to Hammer, the district could save about $237,000 if Wellington were to close. However, if the board voted to close the school, but the community of Monticello voted to keep it open with a referendum vote, the town would have to pay the full cost of running the school, in addition to their share of the required local amount.
In the 2013-14 budget, Monticello paid $360,266 for its share of the required local dollars.
Located about 13 miles from Houlton Elementary School, Wellington is one of two elementary schools in the district that educates pre-kindergarten through third-grade students. The school has one teacher for both pre-K and kindergarten, one first grade and one second grade teacher; and the third grade class is taught by building principal Cindy Peterson.
As of March 3, enrollment at the school was 66 students, with 17 in pre-kindergarten; 14 in kindergarten; 16 in first grade; 10 in second grade; and nine in third grade. In April of 2013, enrollment figures indicated the school had 58 students, with 14 in pre-K; 15 in kindergarten; 10 in first grade; nine in second grade and 10 in third grade.
Hammer said future enrollment projections show a decline is likely in the coming years.
In comparison, Houlton Elementary School has 447 students as of March 3, with 91 students in pre-kindergarten; 93 in kindergarten; 81 in first grade; 102 in second grade; and 80 in third grade.
The last time Wellington School was cited for closure, a public hearing was held in Monticello with residents filling the school’s gymnasium. At that time, residents of Monticello made passionate pleas to the school board to keep their school open, extolling the virtues of the rural school and its role in the community.
“We’re past that stage,” Hammer said Tuesday morning. “There will be a public hearing, but it will be after the board vote has been taken.”
After the school board votes on the matter, the Commissioner of Education must then validate the process. It then goes to a public hearing, followed by a referendum to see if voters approve the closure. Only voters in Monticello would cast ballots to close the school.
According to the Maine Department of Education website, “A school in a member municipality of a regional school unit may not be closed unless the voters in the member municipality vote on the article in accordance with the referendum procedure.”
If the voters vote by a majority vote to keep the school open, the member municipality is liable for some additional expense for actual local operating costs and transportation operating costs. The determination of costs is subject to the approval of the commissioner of education.
“The cost to be borne by the municipality voting to keep a school open is the amount that would be saved if the school were closed,” according to the website. “Any additional costs that must be borne by the member municipality must be part of the article presented to the voters at the meeting to determine whether the school should remain open.”
Three years ago, the district did a preliminary study on closing Wellington with then interim-superintendent Ray Freve. The board, at that time, ultimately decided not to pursue closing the school because the preliminary figures did not support it.
In that data Freve collected, based on the 2011-12 school year, it was estimated the district could save $258,044 per year by closing the school. Part of the reason those numbers did not pan out at that time was because Freve stated an additional building would be needed at HES to absorb all of the students.
Hammer stated Monday evening that the district would likely have to add two modular buildings to the Houlton Elementary School campus to accommodate the additional students. Two buildings could be leased for about $33,000, of which $21,000 would be reimbursed by the state.
The addition of two modular buildings would also open things up to provide more options for the district.
“By moving those students to the elementary school, the overall classroom sizes would decrease for the classrooms impacted,” Grant said. “There would also be an opportunity to provide things that haven’t existed, such as art and foreign language.”
“We have gone over the figures two or three times now,” Hammer said. “We talked about this right around this time a year ago when we were starting to talk about budgets. We believe it (the closure) is inevitable.”
If the board votes in favor of the closure, a timetable for the process will be presented at next month’s regular board meeting. That meeting is slated for Monday, April 7 at 6 p.m. at Houlton Elementary School.