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Board recommends closing last two outlying schools

FORT KENT, Maine — A majority of School Administrative District 27 board members voted Monday evening, August 8, to recommend the closure of both Eagle Lake and Wallagrass elementary schools.

Even as residents in Eagle Lake, Wallagrass and St. Francis continue to explore withdrawing from the six-town district, board members elected to move ahead with closing the two remaining outlying schools due to declining enrollment and as way to address budget concerns.

The St. Francis Elementary School closed in 2015, after a yearlong attempt by residents in that town to keep it open. Also, the town of Winterville withdrew from the district in January 2015, leaving the SAD with six member communities — Fort Kent, Eagle Lake, Wallagrass, New Canada, St. John and St. Francis.

Students from Winterville and Allagash attend MSAD 27 schools through a tuition agreement, although those communities are not part of the district.

State Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who also is an SAD 27 board member, said during Monday’s meeting that the motion to close the two schools was “premature.”

Martin and Clarence “Cur” Soucy were the only two board members to vote against the closure recommendations. The other six board members favored closing the schools, including board chair Barry Ouellette. (Correction note: In a previous version we reported that only five members voted in favor, with Ouellette not voting. The vote was in fact 6-2. We apologize for the error.)

“No one on this board can say for sure that there is no need,” for schools in those outlying communities, Martin said. He expressed concern that projected enrollment figures are changing and that there may still be enough students to keep those outlying schools open.

Martin’s motion to table the closure recommendations was not seconded.

“I would have liked to see the board consider the withdrawal process first,” Soucy told his fellow board members.

Soucy and Martin sit on the withdrawal committees for Wallagrass and Eagle Lake, respectively.

“We need to give these communities more time,” Martin said.

Martin questioned how prepared Fort Kent Elementary School is to receive the approximately 60 students that would be sent from Eagle Lake and Wallagrass, should the closures be approved by the state Department of Education and the respective communities.

Ben Sirois, SAD 27 superintendent, told board members that it was his understanding there is room at FKES for the additional students.

“All we can do is recommend,” board Chair Barry Ouellette said. “It’s up to the community if the school closes.”

The “budget window” to begin the closure process for the 2016-17 school year has passed, Sirois said following the meeting. Any school closures at Eagle Lake or Wallagrass would have to happen after that.

There were only two members of the public present at Monday’s special board meeting, neither of whom asked questions or commented during the board’s discussion about school closures.

The school closure process can be a lengthy one, and includes review and approval by the Maine Department of Education. The district must demonstrate a “lack of need,” according to statute; and the school that is closing must be deemed “unnecessary or unprofitable to maintain.”

Voters in each town must also approve the closure plan via a referendum vote.

It may be the case that any of the three communities exploring withdrawal from SAD 27 will withdraw prior to the 2017 -18 school year. In that case, that community may decide to fund its own school or tuition its students to FKES, with the exception of St. Francis Elementary, which is already closed.

Eagle Lake and Wallagrass Elementary Schools each have students in grades pre K to 2. FKES teaches students in grades pre K through 6, including those from St Francis and Allagash. Valley Rivers Middle School and Community High School in Fort Kent serve all district students in grades 7 to 12.

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