RSU 29 continues Wellington closure talks

  HOULTON, Maine — Monticello residents who wish to file any written comments with the state’s Education Commissioner on the closure of Wellington School have just a few days left to do so.
Thursday is the final day that comments can be received at the Monticello Town Office before they are passed along to Augusta. The commissioner will then review those comments and render a decision on whether the district can move forward with its plans to close the school.

At Monday night’s RSU 29 school board meeting, the topic of Wellington School was back on the floor as a couple of board members took exception to the wording used in the “needs/assessment” document submitted to the state.
Littleton representative Sandra Henderson said she felt the wording in the package that was sent to the state was “totally unfair” and “did not put the teachers and administration in a very good light.”
RSU 29 Superintendent Mike Hammer explained the document is an overall snapshot of how and why the district feels it should consolidate the two schools.
“I understand that it (shortcomings of the school) could be a perception,” he said. “Augusta, I believe, is really going to focus on the dollar amount. When they ask about the figures, it will be a large factor. It is not intended to put one school against another.”
Hammer added that if residents of Monticello felt strongly about the issue, they needed to submit their concerns in writing to the town office so they can be sent along to be factored into the state’s decision.
Henderson also questioned each board member to see if they have even been to Wellington School “to see what it’s like.”
“This isn’t all about money,” Henderson said. “Money should be the least of it.”
Jennifer Johnston, who represents Monticello, said she has received a number of phone calls from concerned residents and questioned what the savings to the district actually would be. She also asked if the district would continue to do snow removal at Wellington School after it closed, since the school would likely be used as a drop-off point for the late bus run.
Their questions came late considering the board voted 7-2 last month to proceed with closing the school. Henderson and Johnston were the only two board members to vote in opposition to the plan at that time.
Hammer said he expects to hear back from the state by April 20 as to whether the district can proceed with closing the school. If the school is ultimately closed, the building would revert back to the town of Monticello.
Monticello residents will be the only group that gets to vote in a referendum on closing the school. If the town opts not to close it, after the state signs off on the plan, residents in Monticello would have to pay the anticipated cost savings in addition to their regular share of the RSU 29 budget. That anticipated savings figure is about $188,000 per year.
RSU 29 has about 1,300 students from the towns of Houlton, Littleton, Hammond and Monticello. 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.
Classroom sizes in Wellington are lower than those found at Houlton Elementary School. At Wellington,  there are 17 in pre-kindergarten; 14 in kindergarten; 16 in first grade; 10 in second grade; and nine in third grade.
In comparison, class sizes at HES vary from a low of 16 to a high of 21.
In other business, the board also agreed to lease two portable classroom buildings for use at HES. Those buildings will help with the additional students coming from Wellington School. Programs slated to be housed in the portable classrooms include the library, technology and music programs as well as storage, which will free up enough room inside HES for the creation of new classroom spaces.
According to Hammer, the units will cost $33,096 to lease for 60 months (5 years). The estimated reimbursement to the district from the state is $22,464.
The school board also:
• Revisited a plan to offer an early retirement incentive to employees. Originally, the board rejected the proposal a couple of months ago, but decided to take another look at the plan. Those teachers who take the retirement incentive will receive $3,000 per year for three years. By offering this incentive, the district feels there will be a cost savings as a new hire coming in would likely be on the lower end of the pay scale than the one retiring.
• Agreed to a three-year bus lease for a new special needs bus. The bus is used to transport students to Presque Isle on a daily basis.
• Welcomed Jim Quirk as the newest board member. Quirk represents Littleton.
• Re-elected Fred Grant as chairman and Liz Anderson as vice chairman for another year.
The next regular board meeting is set for Monday, May 5 at 6 p.m. in the high school library.

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