SALEM TOWNSHIP – Even though Mt. Abram High School seniors Keri Zitsch and Jodie Arms will be long gone when, and if, the school closes, they think the idea stinks.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Zitsch, 17, said Friday, “because they’ll have to go miles and miles to get to school.”

Zitsch and her friend Arms, 18, both seniors at Mt. Abram High School, live in Salem, but they spend too long on the bus already. In the event the high school is closed or merged with one in another district, students will have to spend even longer traveling each day.

But no one knows what will end up happening, SAD 58 board Chairman Mike Pond said.

Board members voted in December to hire consultants to study the district’s options in the face of a drastic reduction in enrollment expected to take place in the near future.

“I believe in the next five years Mt. Abram will be down to around 200 children,” Pond said. “How can you offer the services you need to offer them when you’ve got such a small school? What should we do?”

Not only are enrollments expected to drop, Pond said, but Mt. Abram itself is nearing the end of its expected life span and needs retrofitting, at the least.

It might seem rational to think that the cost of educating kids would go down, if there were fewer of them. But that’s not the case at all, Superintendent Quenten Clark said.

Since state subsidies are based in large part on the numbers of students each district serves, money only gets tighter when enrollment drops.

The state’s funding formula provides ample money in compact districts, he said. But in far-flung rural areas like SAD 58, where each town runs its own elementary school and buses older students for as much as 35 miles each way, each kid’s education costs more.

For example, Clark said, not only does the district operate five schools, where a town with the same number of students might only have three, but it also needs to pay principals, janitors, gym teachers, music teachers, secretaries and basketball coaches.

“Literally, I have to have eight middle school basketball coaches,” Clark said, “And Augusta, they have one middle school. They’ve probably got two.”

“(The state) told us, ‘You should eliminate at least 22 staff members to get down to the ratio,'” Pond said. “But if you do that, you can’t offer anything.”

The district is already spreading itself too thin.

But closing the school isn’t the only option, both Clark and Mt. Abram Principal Jeanne Tucker said.

“There is much to consider before we ever ask the towns to consider a merger,” she said. Many public charter schools operate at an extremely high level of quality with only 150-200 students, she said. They just operate under a slightly different educational philosophy. One teacher might specialize in both English and drama, or art and Spanish, she said – as two of her teachers already do.

Mt. Abram already has a large number of multitalented teachers, she said. It’s just a matter of thinking a little differently.

Which is why hiring outside consultants is so vital, she said. Clark, Pond and others echoed that thought.

Being a small school is really an asset, Administrative Secretary Laura White said. If you think about it, she said, the student-perpetrated violence that has been in the news so much recently seems to happen much more at bigger schools.

“Mt. Abram is a wonderful school,” she said. “It would really be a shame for to it to close.”

Junior Morgan Cummings agreed. “I know I wouldn’t want to go to another school,” she said. “At a bigger school, you don’t know everyone.”

Before anything changes, the studies have to be done, Clark said. After that, the communities will come to a consensus about what to do. Nothing dramatic can happen without a vote, he said, and there are so many options.

The only bad one would be keeping everything the same, and stripping money away to the point where SAD 58’s schools aren’t very good, Clark said.