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Group challenges school closure, files Freedom of Information request

NEW SWEDEN, Maine — Community members wasted little time before circulating petitions after the New Sweden School Committee voted last month to close their town’s school.

Unlike an RSU or MSAD school system, New Sweden is part of a Union, meaning the Feb. 9 decision can move forward without a local vote unless residents produce a petition within 30 days of the original decision. The deadline in this case is March 11.

Since late January, a grassroots effort to keep the school open formed, and 15 members met formally on Feb. 27 to discuss their objectives.

A Jan. 31 New Sweden Board of Selectmen meeting served as a catalyst for the fight against closure, as many believed the board failed to properly notify the town. Despite the designation as a selectmen meeting, the minutes show that it primarily involved school committee members discussing closure. This, and the fact that the minutes show committee officials asking attendees to withhold information about the matter until they could speak to staff, led some community members to believe there was a hidden agenda behind the move to close the 23-year-old New Sweden School.

The general consensus of this movement is that the school could stay open for at least another year without an immense burden on taxpayers. They also believe there are some discrepancies in the three budgets the school committee presented: budget one is to keep the school open with all expenses, budget two is for another year of school with major cuts, and budget three (which the committee approved on Feb. 9) is for closure.

Nancy Hudak, who supports keeping the school open, said the group would present the petitions to the Union 122 School Committee during the upcoming March 9 meeting. Others were confident that the petitioners had met the 33-signature requirement.

While both the community group and school administration have their disagreements, all are concerned about the town and students’ future. The grassroots movement has plenty of gripes with the current administration, with three of their primary concerns being discrepancies in the budget, alternatives for repairs, and what impact closing the school will have on the culture of the town of 600.

Budgetary concerns

Hudak, and many others, are concerned that the school closure budget includes a local allocation significantly lower than the recent average, which results in less money from the state.

Obtained via the Maine Freedom of Access Act, an email in which Union 122 Business Manager Chris Martin asks a Department of Education official if it is possible to request less money from the state reinforces this concern,. The email raised numerous red flags among members of the group, who said they felt this was part of an effort to force a quick closure.

“The budget that was passed lowers the required local allocation by almost $70,000,” Hudak said, “and there is no reason to have done that except, and this is my opinion, to create a crisis that causes the school to close.”

Hudak and other members of the group are skeptical of the current budget and feel they need a better chance to see what the numbers actually look like, and that in the finalized budget the state and local allocations will be closer to their normal average.

Martin later explained the lower state and local allocations in the closure budgets, as well as the context of the cited email.

“The reason those numbers are lower is that we would not require all funds offered by the state (in budget three),” Martin said. “We wouldn’t need that money if the school closed. So I asked Paula (Gravelle of the Maine DOE) what would happen if we didn’t need all of that money. She explained that you can’t ‘request’ less funds, but that if the town raises 90 percent of their portion, the state will only raise 90 percent of theirs.”

Martin added that he was unaware of how the school union could present the closure budget in an honest fashion without showing a lower local and state allocation.

“We didn’t manipulate numbers other than to show a way for communities to reduce their local allocation if they don’t need it,” Martin said.

Inexpensive alternatives

The school committee cited the projected tax burden associated with numerous repairs as a significant factor in deciding to close the school. Before voting on closure during a Feb. 9 public meeting, Committee Chair Michael Stotler said the total of all costs could potentially increase the town’s tax rate by 6-8 mills.

Those opposed to closure believe the school union could make payments for repairs easily over time, especially if the school applies for a bond.

“First and foremost, the proposed budget to keep school open with all services assumes every possible repair or replacement that must be done at any point will be done and paid for in full next year,” said Kasey McNeally, a community member who, along with Hudak, is circulating petitions.

“This is ridiculous,” McNeally said. “There was no question of bonding, looking at cost savings, or exploring alternative quotes.”

McNeally and others said the budget to keep the school open failed to account for a teacher’s plan to retire next year, which would lower numbers on the expense side. Additionally, many said they believed the repairs and maintenance the school leaders outlined as a requirement to keep the school open do not, in reality, carry such a steep price.

“You can take cost of the roof, get matching funds from the state, and bond it out over the course of several years to make payments,” said group member Laurie Molton. “Hardly any of these repairs need to be paid for this year.”

Rob Barnett, a custodian at New Sweden school, said union could easily make the roof repairs (which the school union estimated at roughly $100,000) for about $40,000 and stressed that there are other options to consider.

Barnett also touched on the committee’s estimate of $10,000 in heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs.

“That quote was to restore the entire system back to full functioning, Day One status,” Barnett said. “That’s all efficiency work, and while I fully understand that, it’s not entirely imperative to do it all in one day. I was told that you don’t need to drop 10 grand all at once. You could get by without any of these repairs and manually control everything.”

Both Martin and Superintendent Karla Michaud say they have taken this into consideration, and Martin says the school would have trouble staying open even if the roof renovations were only $40,000.

“There has been a lot of talk about the roof and HVAC,” Martin said. “I think some people are under the assumption that the Maine Bond Bank is like a regular financial institution. Schools have to go through MDOE and access their School Revolving Renovation Fund (SRRF). If you don’t get a approval through them with a certificate of need, you can’t apply for the loan.”

Since the roof requires maintenance to a portion constructed when the community originally built the school, Martin says Union 122 is ineligible to apply for assistance.

Michaud said that, after looking through their options, keeping the school open is “not the best scenario for education.”

“There would be three rooms with ten grades,” Michaud said. “How is that equitable?”

Cultural impact

One New Sweden resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said they received a phone call from a 90-year-old resident concerned that if the community closes the school down, all of New Sweden’s traditions will close down as well, that the community would lose St. Lucia, Winter Carnival, and the Midsommar Festival.

“I think every town has those fears,” Martin said. “Stockholm certainly had them a few years ago, and in a strange way they’ve recently thrived without the pressure to fund a school. The culture was there before the school was there.”

Supt. Michaud said she was unable to see any reason why New Sweden would discontinue their cultural events, adding that Thomas Park would be a great outdoor location for the Midsommar festival.

“The town will still own the school, and it could be utilized as a rec center,” Michaud said. “New Sweden is still a town and has a very tightknit community.”

“The school is the heart of the community,” said McNeally, adding that the building should stay open as “an important center of the community.

While Hudak and McNeally are still fighting closure, both say they would understand if they saw a budget that convinced them it was inevitable.

“If someone can convince us with actual numbers, actual data, and real facts that there is no potential for this building to stay open with students, then I’m there,” Hudak said.

“Closure may be on the horizon as an inevitability,” McNeally said. “It’s been the case for a lot of schools in Maine and Aroostook County.”

“But you want to do everything you can, diligently, and with due process, before you get to that point,” Barnett said.

Superintendent Michaud said that with sixth, seventh and eighth grades having the highest student numbers and the lower grades having small class sizes, it would be wrong to keep the school open for the kids.

“The budget (to keep New Sweden open) is so bare bones that it’s almost embarassing to offer that type of education,” Michaud said.

Aside from making FOAA requests, both Michaud and Martin say this group has made little effort to contact them and discuss budgetary alternatives or to have a conversation about how the school could stay open.

Moving forward, the petitioners will likely present their list of names during the next New Sweden School Committee meeting on Thursday, March 9 at 6 p.m. at the school. If they present the petition, the town will hold a referendum on the matter at some point before the annual town meeting. If the school committee fails to receive a petition by March 11, the facility will officially close at the end of this school year.

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