Proposed closure of New Sweden school divides community

7 years ago

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — Emotions ran high Thursday night as New Sweden residents exchanged heated words over the potential closure of the town’s only public school.

Supporters of the school remaining open feared the loss of community identity, lower quality education for students, and the concern that new families would avoid the area.

Supporters of closing the school argued that the students would be better served where they could have more grades, teachers and educational opportunities and that taxpayers couldn’t afford to keep such a small school open.

Fifty-six students currently are enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at the New Sweden Consolidated School, which all three New Sweden school committee members voted in February to close to reduce the tax burden on residents.

The school committee estimated that the cost to local taxpayers to close the school and tuition students to Woodland Consolidated School would be about $302,000, while the estimated cost to keep it open would be about $571,400. Given the local population of about 600 residents, however, the difference translates into a roughly $5 increase per $1,000 valuation in the property tax rate, according to school and town officials.

The school committee’s vote to close would have been binding, but residents circulated a petition in March to put the decision in the hands of voters. That referendum vote will occur June 13.

Selectmen and school board members sat on a stage overlooking the school gymnasium Thursday night during an informational meeting on the referendum as some of the more than 30 townsfolk in attendance took turns weighing in on the polarizing issue.

Some residents complained about a flier distributed around the community in recent days advocating for closure of the school. The mailing, with the superintendent’s office as a return address, cited decreasing state subsidies, a decreasing student population and increasing school costs and local taxes as reasons for closing the school.

Members of a Keep New Sweden School Open group expressed concerns that the flier was “propaganda,” paid for by tax dollars, and questioned the legality of their actions.

Laurie Molton asked how the superintendent’s office paid to distribute it.

Superintendent Karla Michaud, who oversees School Union 122 and which consists of Woodland, New Sweden and Westmanland, told Molton that a member of the school committee, and not taxpayers, paid for the flier.

“Well it shouldn’t have the mailing address for the superintendent’s office,” Molton said. “That makes it appear corrupt.”

“We didn’t want to put anyone’s personal address out there,” Michaud said, “so this was the best option.”

“No it’s not,” said Molton, as audience members began to murmur in agreement with her.

“No personal attacks please,” said meeting moderator Harold Tardy. “We’re here to talk about closure, not about a flier that was sent out. We’re getting into personal territory.”

School Committee Chair Michael Stotler later explained that it was his idea to distribute the fliers to provide the appropriate information to residents.

“At the end of the day we’re doing the best we can with what we have, and had no intentions of closing the school until we were faced with the budgets,” he said. “All we could think about is those students you used to teach, their education, and their future. It had nothing to do with the citizens of the town; it was all about the students. My exact words for you tonight are that that is why we put the budget forth to close the school, because we care for the kids.”

Molton countered that the Keep New Sweden School Open group was just asking for more time in order to gather more specific budget numbers with which voters can make an informed decision. The organization has been suspicious of the estimates the school committee provided.

“Everything we’re doing is just to ask for time until we get the correct numbers,” Molton said. “There is no other way to do it than to vote, “No,” so we have more time to consider our options. That’s the whole point of this.”

Kasey McNeally, who is running for one of two open spots on the school committee on June 13, said that many in the Keep New Sweden School Open group have spent a great deal of time “having conversations about sustainability and bringing in students.”

“Unfortunately, none of us have any power, because we’re not on the school committee,” McNeally said, “but I will remind you that the committee changes by two thirds as of July 1st, so we’re voting on a budget proposed by people who will mostly be gone within the next month.”

A resident asked if the newly elected officials will have any say in the potential closing of the school, to which members of the board said they would not.

One New Sweden resident shifted the focus of the debate to the quality of education children could have at New Sweden if the school remained open. If it did remain open, the superintendent has said that the five lowest grades would be combined into one classroom with one teacher, and the four remaining grades in another. A third classroom would be required for all special education students.

“Putting kindergarten to fourth grade together takes self esteem from the smaller child and later they become bullied,” the audience member said. “That’s why we stopped the one room schoolhouses. We should be happy that our kids get a better education and have a better shot, than keeping them here combining them into two classrooms. Eight grades in two classes. That’s disgusting.”

Janet Grieco responded by stating that she holds a doctorate in education and that “studies discover more and more that collaborative classes are far better for students if they’re properly managed.”

“As reference,” Grieco said. “I have an 11-year-old grandson who is going into eighth grade from those horrible mutli-level classrooms we have here in New Sweden and he is doing quite well.”

The audience member responded by saying her children had problems with collaborative classrooms.

“When most children leave for eighth grade,” she said, “they have a terrible first year in Caribou. They’re not prepared. My grandson who now is graduating high school on Sunday had problems here, they destroyed his self-esteem”

“We’re getting into personal,” Tardy said. “We’re not going to do that. Let’s stick to the budget.”

Residents collectively voted to allow one audience member, who was not a New Sweden resident, offer perspective on the situation.

“About 20 years ago I came up here with two sons,” said the non-resident. “When I was in high school in Ohio, I had 1,000 people in my class. I’d walk into classes with 70 to 80 people.”

The man said his children have attended schools in Limestone, Stockholm, and Caribou, and that his oldest son now works at a law firm.

“We had our kids in all three schools and loved the teachers,” he said. “I know some people are really against Caribou, but it didn’t hurt my son’s chances at law school.”

While not taking a position on the closure, he concluded  by telling the audience, “We’re citizens, and we all want what’s best. You’re all good people. Just remember that the kids will be well-served no matter where they go.”

Once voters decide the school’s fate on June 13, New Sweden will hold its town meeting on June 15. Moving forward, the school committee will vote to accept a budget for the 2017-18 year based on the referendum results.