News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 10, 2018
Selectmen, superintendent eye school future

by Rich Hewitt

While a committee forms to study the options for the future composition of the island schools, town officials are already raising concerns about what those options might cost.

Selectmen met recently with Union 76 Superintendent Chris Elkington to discuss the proposed $6.78 million school budget for the 2018-19 school year. Elkington reviewed the PowerPoint presentation he’d made at a recent public hearing on the budget; much of the discussion centered on the long-term future of the island schools.

Earlier this year, Elkington outlined several possible options for school composition on the island and the planned committee will research those and other options and report back to the school board in late December.

“Quality,” Elkington said. “Can we do a quality K-12 program? That’s what we’ve been struggling with.”

A declining student population, the remote location of the school district and the high per student costs have made it difficult to provide the kinds of programs that are often available at larger schools especially at the high school level, and the lack of housing on the island has made it difficult to attract teachers and staff to the district.

The towns face some of the same problems in that it is difficult to find workers willing to drive to the island for work, and the lack of affordable housing makes it even harder to attract workers. Added to that is the high cost of education on the island.

“If the tax for education goes up, every place else looks a lot more attractive,” Town Manager Kathleen Billings said.

The options Elkington identified earlier this year range from doing nothing to consolidating all classes in one building to closing the high school building and sending high school students off island for their education. All of those options will have a price tag attached to them, Billings said, and she stressed that it is important for the towns to know, early on, what those costs will be. Stonington has a number of major capital projects in the planning stages, she said, as does Deer Isle. Additional costs in the form of a major school project will put a lot of pressure on the two island towns, she said.

Elkington agreed that there likely will be costs attached to any option and he outlined some of them. Consolidating K-12 students in the current elementary school will require an addition to house more classrooms, and even maintaining the status quo will demand an investment in improvements at the high school building.

He suggested that it might be prudent for the three entities involved, the school department and the two towns, to work together to outline what they anticipate for major capital projects in the next few years. As the school board looks at options, he said, they will be better prepared to determine the impact any school changes will have on the towns and on the school.

“We need to work together to understand the needs of all three entities,” Elkington said.

Then, he added, they need to wait to see what the costs are going to be and how they will affect all three.

Although the committee is expected to make its report to the school board in December, Elkington said nothing will happen for at least a year. Once the school board reviews the committee recommendations, it will send the option or options out to a public referendum vote, he said. It might include several options allowing residents to have a “ranked choice” vote, he said. That vote won’t take place until March or June by which time the school budget will be in place for the 2019-20 school year.

In other action, Billings reported that construction has finally begun on the cell tower in town. The town’s planning board renewed the permit for the project last week. She said that AT&T expected to have service ready for most of the summer months.

In addition, Billings said the town has the opportunity to put a repeater on the tower that will help improve radio coverage for first responders. The repeater will cost an estimated $5,000, she said.