State

Board votes to shut down New Sweden School

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — Citizens were shocked when they recently discovered their local school may close, and their opposition was made clear during a Feb. 9 New Sweden school committee meeting.

Over 55 members of the public packed together in folding chairs in the school cafeteria, with many upset about what they perceived as a lack of transparency regarding the issue. In the end, however, committee members voted to close the 23-year-old facility.

Prior to this meeting, the New Sweden Selectmen and School Committee held a Jan. 31 meeting to discuss the possibility of closing the preK-8 New Sweden School. According to the meeting minutes, School Committee Chair Michael Stotler told selectmen that they would be deciding “whether to close the school and transport the kids to Woodland.”

Committee members cited $100,000 roof repairs, as well as a dwindling student population, as reasons for potential closure. The minutes also state that the superintendent and school committee asked “for courtesy in not telling anyone until it was discussed with staff.”

While three members of the public attended the late January meeting, many in the New Sweden community were unaware of the Jan. 31 meeting and, by the time of Thursday’s meeting, word of possible closure quickly spread throughout the town of 600.

New Sweden School Committee Chair Michael Stotler explained the events leading up to a Feb. 9 meeting in which the option of school closure was discussed. Stotler told the public in attendance that the 2017-18 school budget could result in significant tax increase, and also apologized for any perceived lack of transparency with prior meetings on the subject between district leaders and town officials. (Staff photo | Christopher Bouchard)

New Sweden School Committee Chair Michael Stotler explained the events leading up to a Feb. 9 meeting in which the option of school closure was discussed. Stotler told the public in attendance that the 2017-18 school budget could result in significant tax increase, and also apologized for any perceived lack of transparency with prior meetings on the subject between district leaders and town officials. (Staff photo | Christopher Bouchard)

Committee members sped through the first eight items on the agenda, as those in attendance were strictly there to speak about the budget and potential school closure. Before allowing 20, and eventually another 10 minutes for public comments, Stotler spoke about factors leading up to the meeting, and the committee’s effort to keep the public informed.

According to Stotler, a financial workshop was planned for Nov. 10, but was changed to Nov. 29 due to the weather. When committee members met for this workshop, he said their “jaws dropped to the table” upon seeing the 2017-18 school district budget.

“We asked Chris Martin (Union 122 Business Manager) to help us come up with some options,” Stotler said. “As soon as we realized there was a possibility of closing the school, I immediately brought up transparency. Anyone here will tell you, I said we have to be transparent.”

Following the late November budget meeting, Stotler said elected officials were informed as part of an effort to inform the “right people at the right time” and avoid the spreading of rumors about potential closure. The chair added that a half-hour budget workshop was held before a regular school board meeting so the committee would have an idea of what they were up against.

“I want to make it clear that we made no commitment to close the school,” Stotler said of the recent joint meeting.

According to Stotler, he asked Union 122 Superintendent Karla Michaud to inform the New Sweden School principal and staff about the possibility of closure before alerting the public.

“The idea was to inform the people who would be affected the most before informing the public,” Stotler said. “I thought this would be the most transparent way to put this out there.”

The committee chair elaborated on some of the funding hurdles, which include a declining student population, a myriad of necessary repairs such as a $100,000 roof renovation, along with issues regarding less State funding for schools.

Stotler said there were three options in moving forward with the budget: to keep the school open and increase the local tax rate by six to eight mills, to make significant cuts to student activities and reduce the quality of education, or to close the school and send New Sweden area kids to Woodland.

New Sweden Principal Laurie Spooner delivered the first public remarks, and questioned the seemingly clandestine approach of holding the prior budget meetings.

“I’m a teacher and building administrator here at New Sweden School,” Spooner said, “Budgets were difficult when I served on the school committee, and first thing we did was ask the staff what we could do. That information was invaluable. We all came together and helped one another.”

“Tonight,” Spooner continued, “the staff and I in this room knew nothing more than any of you here this evening. We’ve never been asked about it. Had we been told that there was an issue or given any of this data, we would have been more than willing to help, and we still are.”

New Sweden resident and former committee member Kasey McNeally of Westmanland informed those present that she and her two children attended the Jan. 31 meeting, and commented on the lack of public notification.

“The state of Maine statutes for Freedom of Access and Right to Know are clear,” McNeally said. “My concerns are that your joint committee meeting was never posted by the school board — only selectmen, and the only item on the agenda was ‘budgetary issues’ which doesn’t give townspeople much to go on.”

McNeally added that minutes for the second budget workshop were not posted or available to the public.

“If you wanted this to be transparent, having a joint committee meeting and then asking people not to discuss (school closure) was not the way to go about it,” McNeally said. “Perhaps a public informational meeting might have been a better option. However, the way it was done, in combination with meetings and workshops that were not publicized, doesn’t make this look transparent. It makes it look like there’s an agenda.”

“In retrospect, we could have had a public meeting,” Stotler responded. “We didn’t want it to just be thrown out there with people spreading false rumors, so I apologize for that.”

Janet Greico, whose grandchildren attend New Sweden School, also commented on the manner previous meetings were carried out.

“I have a PhD in education and 30 years of experience as a reporter,” Greico said. “I know the statutes, and this is a violation that leaves you open for additional legal action.”

New Sweden Selectman Sven Bonderson told the committee that, even if the school is closed, the estimated $100,000 in roof repairs would still need to be funded via local taxes since the school would be town property.

Laurie Molton, who has experience teaching in a number of local schools, asked why New Sweden’s school, which opened in 1994, should close before Woodland.

“This is a brand new facility that is more fuel efficient and requires less maintenance,” Molton said. “Come on guys, this is ridiculous. If this school closes, everybody goes to Woodland, and if Woodland closes, everybody would go to Caribou.”

Former New Sweden student Lukas Lagasse’s comments elicited applause from the audience.

“I had one heck of a quality education at this school,” Lagasse said. “I went to New Sweden and learned so much that I didn’t start learning new information until about halfway through my sophomore year at Caribou High School. That’s how well the teachers prepared us here. There are multiple people from this school who are now teachers, doctors, and civic leaders, and that’s why this school should stay.”

Resident David Spooner asked for clarification on the projected student population, particularly how the school determines the number of incoming preK students.

Superintendent Michaud said that the state provides a list of births in the community, which the district uses in their projections. Business Manager Martin added that all student population projections are “speculations based on what we think the future is going to be.”

The supplemental 10 minutes of allowable public comment came to a close, and Stotler delivered some final remarks before the committee’s vote.

“At the end of the day this is about the kids’ education,” Stotler said. “There are so many different guidelines and poor Chris (Martin) is spinning his head trying to get answers for us. Karla (Michaud) has always communicated with the community and trying to get people to come to our school. These things are happening all the time behind the scenes.”

After Stotler’s remarks, committee member Amber Moutinho motioned to close the school.

“This is not based on a decision I want to make,” said Moutinho. “I have children who go to this school. I went to this school, and have siblings who went here. However, I feel that as a member of this board, it is not only my job to take into consideration what’s in the best interest of these kids, but also of taxpayers. Looking at the budget, I don’t see where anything else can be taken out while still giving kids a quality education. If anything else is taken from the budget, we’re taking it out of our kids.”

The meeting adjourned after Moutinho’s motion was seconded and carried by the committee. Moving forward, the people of New Sweden will be able to vote on closure during a town-wide referendum to be held later this year.

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