SALEM TOWNSHIP — The SAD 58 board heard impassioned requests from northern Franklin County residents Tuesday night to keep Stratton Elementary School open.
After the nine members listened to nearly two and a half hours of testimony, they agreed unanimously to table a decision to close any district school until forming a community-board task force of all stakeholders to research options.
“We need each other,” board Chairman Judy Dill said to the audience. “We need to work together.”
The board is developing a budget with the expectation it would have to make drastic cuts. One option would close the Stratton school next year and bus students to Kingfield.
Tuesday night it heard protests from the parents, taxpayers and residents, unanimously asking the board to take that option off the table.
Superintendent Brenda Stevens acknowledged to the audience of at least 150 who packed the cafeteria on the snowy evening, that the decision to close any school was difficult and that board members were placed in a difficult position.
“Emotions and numbers aren’t a very good mix at times,” she said.
Carrabassett Valley students pay tuition to attend the Stratton school, and Stevens said she had visited with that town’s board members recently.
“They are very aware of the difficulty of this situation,” she said.
Stratton resident Jeanne Guttman addressed the audience and board, referring to her experience as a professor and a background in accounting. She questioned the process that proved closing the school would save the district money.
“I want to see some concrete numbers,” Guttman said. “I want to know how much we’ll save by closing the Stratton school.”
Stevens estimated the district would save $400,000 to $600,000 but said she could not provide final figures until she learned what funding would come from state and federal governments.
If SAD 58 doesn’t want us in the budget, we will go it alone,” Guttman said.
Student Ethan Wilson represented his fellow classmates at the Stratton School.
“We want future classes to look up to our accomplishments as we looked up to others,” he said. “If you closed the school, the community would be greatly affected.”
Speakers, at times in tears or with voices cracking with nervousness, addressed the burden on parents, the inability of parents to attend school events, and the safety of children who have to travel long distances every day.
Stephanie Bigelow went to the Stratton school and has had to juggle travel and work to transport her own children.
“You’re expecting 4-year-olds to travel on the bus every day to and from Kingfield, when some parents wouldn’t drive from there (Kingfield) to Stratton for practices,” she said.
Another speaker suggested that small towns were paying an unfairly high penalty for governmental excesses, citing the large salaries paid to representatives.
Formerly a Strong board member for 18 years, Mike Pond suggested teachers’ salaries and cost of fuel for transportation were problems in the rural district. He also said that the Maine Department of Education’s mandated but unreasonable formulas punished rural school districts that couldn’t meet Essential Programs and Services ratios of teachers to students. Funding to schools is based on total enrollment and town property values.
“We have cut and cut and cut our music and art and phys ed,” he said. “This train is falling off the track.”