School closings on rise

The town of Wales has plenty of company when it comes to making the tough decision of whether to raise taxes or close a school.

With shrinking budgets and a declining number of students, school closings are on the rise in Maine, said Jim Rier, director of School Finance and Operations for the Maine Department of Education.

Fourteen schools closed in 2009, and 20 closed in 2010, Rier said. Most were elementary schools with small enrollments of between 40 and 80 students.

According to Maine Department of Education statistics, the number of public school students has fallen 9 percent in the past decade. In 1998, the state had 216,121 public school students. That number shrank to 207,484 in 2003; and to 198,219 in 2007.

Schools get state education money based, in part, on their numbers of students. Communities with fewer students get less money.

Those smaller budgets are making it more difficult to justify keeping small schools open, Rier said. “Districts are facing financial issues they may not have had over the last four or five years.”

The closed schools include Columbia Falls Elementary in Washington County; Starks Elementary, Embden Elementary and Cornville Elementary, all in Somerset County, and Palmyra Consolidated School near Newport.

Also, Weld Elementary School in Franklin County; Burnham Village School in Waldo County; Down Road School in Cumberland; Guilford Primary School and McKusick Elementary School, both in Piscataquis County.

An elementary school in Harpswell was on the closing block but will not close, for now. Harpswell residents voted to keep it open and pay the extra $200,000 a year, Rier said.

"It's always a difficult decision to close a school," he said. That's especially true when the community, like Wales, has only one school. But when faced with a low student population, and when there are other opportunities for students to attend school in other towns, the choice is often to close, he said.

“In most places they can't muster the votes to keep it open," he said. "It's a pretty hard sell."

In Wales, the cost of keeping the K-2 school open would be $208,000 extra per year, which local taxpayers might have to pay every year the school stays open, Rier said.

If Wales voters decide in referendum, likely scheduled for February or March, to keep the school open, taxpayers will have to pay the extra $208,000 a year to keep the 60 students in town.

The Regional School Unit 4 Board of Directors, which represents Wales, Sabattus and Litchfield, would decide next year whether the three towns would share the $208,000 cost, or again vote to close the school. That would again generate the need for a Wales referendum, Rier said.

Since the two-room, grades K-5 Weld Elementary School closed, students are bused to Wilton Academy, about 12 miles away.

That means a longer bus trip and larger classes, Wilton Academy Principal Darlene Paine said. But students have adjusted well, she said.

“They are happy here and a great addition to our school population," Paine said. "The parents have been very supportive of their children's educational process.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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