Andover struggles to save its school

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ANDOVERSave our school is the rallying cry of a large number of residents hoping to keep their beloved elementary school open.

The motivation stems not only from the special place the school has in their hearts — generations of townspeople have graduated from there — but also from the fears of what is to become of Andover should the school close.

Andover Elementary, with an enrollment of 30 students in grades kindergarten to five, is in the center of the quiet, picturesque Western Maine town of 900 residents. It has fallen victim to forces of declining enrollment, significantly less federal and state educational aid, and a higher operating costs.

“Ten to 12 years ago we had an enrollment at Andover Elementary School of over 100,” Sidney Pew, Andover resident and SAD 44 board chairman, said. The enrollment was expected to drop further next year to the upper 20s, he said.

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“We are in a unique spot as we are located  in a wealthy district with high property value towns, so we get less funding ($500,000) from the state,” he said.

Should the school be closed, the state has estimated the town would save $214,000, he said.

The 17-member school board voted 10-6 in January to close the school, but the vote was not binding because a two-thirds majority is required by the state.

In a second vote last month, the tally was 13-3 for closure.

Pew said after a couple of months of reflection he changed his mind to vote for keeping the school open because, in part, he thought the whole process was “too hurried.”

Pew said the $214,000 would be placed into other educational accounts, such as $40,000 to replace a special education position and $80,000 in a contingency fund, giving the board the option to pay transportation and maintenance costs.

“We need a contingency fund to cover our upcoming 2013 budget, he said.

“We (the school board) will take requests to reconsider the school closure vote at the next school board meeting on Monday, May 16,” he said.

In the meantime, hundreds of Andover residents have rallied to keep the school from closing. The Save/ReCreate Andover Elementary School movement, spearheaded by Jane Clukey and Heather O’Leary, has created a Facebook page that has generated a voluminous response. Meetings to save the school have drawn standing-room-only crowds. A recent rally petition last Saturday in the town center generated 222 signatures to save the school.

“The school is the heartbeat of our community,” said Clukey, who has a student enrolled in the school and another she hopes to enroll.

The school, besides providing a high quality supportive learning environment, plays a vital role in the community’s cohesiveness by providing after-school programs for the entire community, such as workshops, adult recreation classes and other activities, she said.

In addition, Clukey and other Andover school supporters worry that closing the school might mean the town will not attract young families that seek a community close to good schools.

The town was hit hard financially when Andover Wood Products, a major community employer, left a short while ago. The town needs Andover Elementary School to remain, Clukey said, in order to be a viable economic magnet for future businesses.

She also said, “If, say a student has to be on a school bus for 90 minutes to go to a school 23 miles away, I can’t believe that is benefiting the students’ education.”

Clukey and Pew said other measures will be explored to keep the school open, such as a town vote to raise money to operate it and operating it apart from an organized school district.

                            dfayen@sunjournal.com

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