SALEM TOWNSHIP — RSU 58 directors heard impassioned pleas from a standing-room-only audience to keep the school district intact.
On Thursday night, the Mt. Abram High School library was filled with more than 100 parents, students, teachers and residents.
Lisa Brackley of Strong presented a stack of pages with signatures, which represented more than 300 residents who wanted to keep all 13 grades in the Regional School Unit, rather than sending any high school students to a school outside the district.
"Our kids are our future," said Brackley, wiping tears from her eyes.
The meeting included opportunities for public comment, and Phillips Selectman Andy Phillips said the increase in the town's taxes included significant costs for road repairs.
With local property owners bearing the brunt of overall cost increases in their towns, older homeowners on fixed incomes can't pay more, and younger people can't afford to buy a house and raise a family, either, municipal officials said.
The school district itself is like a family, said employee and resident Sharon Dudley.
If students graduate from a local elementary school and may be required to attend high school in another district, they won't return to their home communities after graduation, she said.
Student population has declined, and the future doesn't look bright for the years ahead, if state support for local education continues to decline, Superintendent Brenda Stevens said.
"The state gives us less every year and expects us to do more," Superintendent Brenda Stevens said. "We've been doing more with less, but at some point, we're going to do less with less."
If residents want to be able to afford paying taxes to keep the schools open, the taxpayers have to become more vocal and they have to understand how their selectmen spend the taxpayers' money in other ways than supporting the school district.
"The more young people we lose, the more students we lose," school board member Rupert Pratt of Strong said. "You need to talk with your legislators.
Avon school board member David Masterman suggested residents ask their legislators to find other ways to raise revenue, rather than depending strictly on property taxes.
"This state is rich in resources," he said.
The district includes 4,000 people, Phillips director Dan Worcester noted, so although Brackley's 301 signatures indicated an interest in keeping the district intact, they don't represent all the taxpayers. Previous boards have postponed costs for repairs and upgrades to the school buildings, but Worcester said he wants to know where and how the money will be spent.
"I can not sit here and kick the can down the road without knowing the costs," he said.
“So who is going to make the decision, the school board or the voters?” asked newly-appointed Phillips school board member John Foss.
The board agreed that voters would decide, but directors had to be able to understand and explain the projected costs to residents of the four district towns of Avon, Kingfield, Phillips and Strong. They agreed to deconstruct the 2013-14 budget to compare costs that should be added, changed, or eliminated in the coming year.
In other news, Mt. Abram High School Principal Marco Aliberti shared study results recently published by US News & World Report. Maine has 109 school districts, which support 120 high schools. The data was based on the 2010-2011 academic year. Of those Maine high schools, he said, Mt. Abram High School ranked 13th out of 120.
The study included the high school's student/teacher ratio, college readiness, math, and reading. The individual schools were ranked by criteria that included the number of economically disadvantaged students and the proportion of students taking advanced placement courses.
“It's a tribute to the hard work of the entire staff and the students,” Aliberti said.
He also received a letter of apology from Maine Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. The high school received a "D" rating from the department, based on incorrect data. The revised rating of a "C" reflected that high school's standing.
"We deeply regret our error and thank you for bringing it to our attention," Bowen wrote to Stevens and Aliberti. "In particular, Mt. Abram has done an impressive job integrating technology into learning — connecting your rural school to (the) world."