February 23, 2019

Elementary schools may be closed Parents from Columbia Falls, Cherryfield expected at board meeting

HARRINGTON – Parents from two towns whose elementary schools are on a list for potential closure next year for budget reasons are expected to turn out in force this evening for a special meeting of the district’s board of directors.

The Columbia Falls and Cherryfield schools, probably in that order, are under consideration by SAD 37 directors to be closed.

Residents of the six towns in the district – Addison, Cherryfield, Columbia, Columbia Falls, Harrington and Milbridge – were surveyed last month on how they wish directors might make their decisions, given the budget limitations. The results of the survey will be reviewed when the directors meet at 7 p.m. at Narraguagus High School.

“We will review the survey results and discuss the options that are in front of SAD 37,” said Steve Pagels, chairman of the board. “The meeting is not set up for action items.”

Directors could make a decision on how to move forward as soon as their next regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 25, providing the directors have received updated budget information from the Maine Department of Education.

A legislated formula called Essential Programs and Services, put in place for the current school year, has reduced state funding for many of Washington County’s most rural schools. District budgets are particularly in peril for the coming year.

Part of this evening’s agenda includes a special presentation on small schools and the impact of consolidation. Keith Cook and Dick Gould of the Maine Small Schools Coalition will be the speakers, at the request of parents whose schools may be closed.

The surveys presented four choices that the board has arrived at through a series of workshops last fall: keep the five elementary and one high school the way they are; close Columbia Falls; close Columbia Falls and Cherryfield; or reconfigure and adjust classrooms.

Just 16 percent of surveys – or 483 – were returned.

Of those, 230 favored closing both schools, although 191 of those respondents did not have children in school. Another 101 favored the status quo, and 64 favored closing Columbia Falls. Another 59 favored reconfiguring, and nine more had no choice.

Pagels stressed that Columbia Falls and Cherryfield are “not cast in concrete” as the schools most likely to be closed, if any. However, they figure at the top of the list of the district’s five elementary schools because of the building sizes and configurations.

All of the schools have been visited recently by the district’s administrative team, its maintenance supervisor and its architect for assessments – and Columbia Falls and Cherryfield were flagged mainly for building reasons.

Columbia Falls currently has 89 pupils, and Cherryfield has 111. Milbridge has 106 pupils; D.W. Merritt in Addison has 110, and Harrington, 124.

Once the board receives more information on state funding, it will look closely at the possible closures.

“That will be for the board to discuss,” Pagels said. “I can’t predict any outcomes, but these are very serious options being considered – especially because the responses were really all over the map.”

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