HODGDON, Maine — A proposal to move seventh- and eighth-grade students from Mill Pond Elementary to Hodgdon High School, possibly as early as next school year, was met with reservation by community members during a special meeting March 31.
About 125 individuals attended the special meeting held at Hodgdon High School, to voice either their support or opposition to the proposal. The board also met Tuesday evening to further discuss the issue.
“Contrary to what you might be hearing, there have been no decisions made yet,” SAD 70 Board Chairman Estela Lane said. “We welcome, as a board, input from the community. That is why were are here tonight to hear from you.”
SAD 70 Superintendent Scott Richardson said the question on whether to move students was likely to draw considerable discussion from the board during the upcoming budget talks.
“Everyone here wants the best for your students,” he said. “Your input will be invaluable for moving forward for the best outcome for the district.”
Declining enrollment at the high school, a number of costly maintenance issues for the district’s buildings, and trying to come up with a workable budget for the next school year were cited as reasons to consider the move.
Richardson said, based on preliminary figures from the state, the district was looking at a loss of about $85,000 in state subsidy next year. The required local share to receive state funds could also be on the rise.
By moving the seventh- and eighth-graders, the district administration believes it could save money by not having to replace several teaching positions due to retirements. The existing high school teaching staff would be able to absorb some of those extra responsibilities. The district could also consider relocating its central office, which houses the superintendent and business manager, to Mill Pond School.
Enrollment at the high school has slowly been declining for the past seven years. There are presently 146 students for grades 9-12, and the enrollment for next year is anticipated to be 136 students. Back in the 2008-09 school year, there were 159 students.
Enrollment at Mill Pond School has remained relatively stable during that same timespan. There are currently 321 students in the school, with an estimated 340 expected next year.
In February, following a feasibility study conducted by Bunker and Savage Architects of Augusta, the board learned the high school was in dire need of significant repairs. The current high school, which is about 37,600 square feet, was built in 1938. The gymnasium was added in the 1970s as a stand-alone building. Major renovations took place at the high school in 1986, including the addition of classrooms, a library, administrative space and a central, multi-functional area, which serves as the school’s cafeteria.
Repairs at the high school are estimated at $1.7 million, while Mill Pond School needs roughly $840,000 in fixes. Not all of the repairs listed in the feasibility study, however, need to be done immediately.
Some residents questioned why the move was even considered, stating the board should follow the “If it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it” approach. They also questioned the lack of concrete financial figures provided at the meeting.
If the district were to move the students over to the high school, a separate area in the school would be created for the seventh- and eighth-graders by moving the science labs. There would be a cost to transform the classrooms to suit those needs, but those costs were not presented at the meeting.
Some questioned what would happen to the district’s after-school program, while others expressed reservations about 13- and 14-year-olds being in the same building as high school students, due to what they felt was a wide disparity in maturity levels.
Richardson said every effort would be made to keep the seventh- and eighth-graders separated from the high school students. Two lunch periods would be held, while breakfast would be served in the middle-schoolers classroom.
Parents also noted the lack of separate bathroom facilities for the younger students at the high school, stating they feared their child would not use the facilities if older students were present. Still others questioned if there was enough time between the end of the current school year and beginning of next year to make all the changes necessary.
Resident Keith Harrington took a more fiscal approach and asked if the decision to move the students was being done to make the high school appear more viable for the future to keep it open. He also asked if the district had given any consideration to closing the building and tuition the high school students to another school, which could result in a cost savings to the district.
Richardson stated that (closure) could be something the board considers, but he was not recommending that drastic of a move at the present time.
Lane noted the school board has the authority to make the decision of whether to move the seventh- and eighth-grade classes without a town vote. However, any decision involving closing the high school would require multiple public forums and a referendum vote.
The board will continue its discussion of moving classes when it begins the budget process for the 2015-16 school year at the next regular meeting, slated for Monday, April 13 at 7 p.m.