Parents respond to options for middle school students

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Faced with a $2.1 million budget shortfall, Regional School Unit 16 officials are considering three plans for restructuring how middle school students in Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland are educated.

The first plan retains three separate middle schools; the second retains Poland’s Whittier Middles School and moves Minot’s seventh- and eighth-graders to Mechanic Falls; and the third establishes Whittier as the district’s only middle school.

In separate meetings, residents of the three towns reacted to the proposals.

In Poland, where 50 people gathered recently, concerns centered on loses in arts and language offerings. Several parents spoke to the fact that under all scenarios proposed cuts mean there will be no music for the district’s K-6 grades.

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Parents were very receptive to having Mechanic Falls and Minot students go to Whittier middle school.

“People have been floating this idea around for years,” Nancy Walker said, “Let’s just do it. No more talk, let’s just do it.”

In Mechanic Falls, more than 100 people met Thursday night and many declared their affection for their Elm Street School and made clear that they didn’t want their seventh- and eighth-graders transferred to Poland.

Parent Mitzi McKellick pointed out that Mechanic Falls is unique among the three towns in that it has a center, and is a village where children can be seen playing and walking about.

“If we lose our junior high, it will change the dynamics of our town,” McKellick said. “This school is the heartbeat of our town.”

Other parents argued that this “survival mode” decision, made under financial pressure, should be delayed, allowing clear thoughtful planning.

Responding to a comment that people were being railroaded into a tri-town middle school, School Committee Chairman Dave Griffiths told the audience that while there are very good reasons for a common middle school, the board has not made up its mind. He stated his personal preference was that people of the towns “open our wallets.”

Principal Mary Martin confirmed that Elm Street School could accommodate Minot students.

Whittier Principal Ayesha Davis , noting  that the unknown is scary, invited everyone to tour the Poland school.

In Minot, where more than 90 attended Monday’s meeting, the tri-town middle school option was parents’ first choice.

“We aren’t ‘sending’ our kids to Poland. We aren’t ‘going’  to Poland. We are all coming together,” parent Carey Woods said. 

“Will we have a ‘step-up’ day?” sixth-grader Libby Burtrand asked.

“Absolutely,” meeting moderator Colleen Quint said.

While people voiced strong support for the three-town merger, they expressed reservations about other programs that are being considered for reduction or elimination.

Hal Bridgham noted that the total spent on athletics and extracurricular activities is insignificant while the return is incredible.”

Responding to criticism that K-6 music was on the to-be-eliminated list, Quint said, “We’ve heard that everywhere. We have reconsidered K-6 music.”

In all three towns people noted that even with merging the three middle schools, cutting other programs and eliminating 24 positions, the funding gap still stood at $600,000.

School Superintendent Dennis Duquette said officials are working on the gap, and he invited people from all three towns to attend a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 15, in the high school auditorium. At that time, school officials will present estimates on the effects the school budget will have on property tax rates.

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