High school may need $5 million upgrade for return of freshmenSchool board votes to merge middle schools, send grade 9 to Rockland, split on closure of Owls Head
Rockland — The Regional School Unit 13 board voted 9-3 Aug. 21 to combine two district middle schools and send the ninth grade to Oceanside High School East.
The high school may need more than $5 million in upgrades to accommodate the students, according to documents presented at the meeting.
The motion made by Arvilla Collins of Thomaston was to merge Thomaston Grammar School and Rockland District Middle School, defining middle school as grades 6, 7, and 8, and to accomplish this by the 2015-2016 school year. The motion also called for changing the district's present system of having grade 9 go to school with the eighth grade at Oceanside High School West in Thomaston. Instead, grade 9 will go back to being part of a four-year high school program at Oceanside High School East in Rockland.
It has not been determined where the combined middle school will be. Board member Bill Pearce of Rockland favored Rockland District Middle School, saying it was designed to be a middle school and could add to its library. The building is in good condition, he said.
Other board members said they would favor Oceanside High School West in Thomaston as the site.
By the way the motion was worded, St. George students were exempted. There was some debate about whether St. George middle-schoolers in grades 7 and 8 should be bused to Thomaston or Rockland to go to a district middle school. Chairwoman Tess Kilgour of Rockland pointed out on a map of the district how long that bus ride is.
Carol Bachofner of Rockland argued the district should leave the students in St. George until after that community decides whether to withdraw from the district. She was worried about a "ping-pong" effect of moving the students and then moving them again for the withdrawal, disrupting their academic careers.
Board member Donald Robishaw of Rockland argued that grade 9 students feel left out of high school functions and do not feel like they fit in with junior high school students.
George Emery of St. George disagreed, arguing students were conditioned to want to be part of the high school and these feelings were based on sentimentality. He said he was concerned about the costs associated with this move.
In the vote, Emery, Pearce and Loren Andrews of Cushing were opposed to the motion.
$5 million in high school upgrades
Superintendent Lew Collins said the district would need to make upgrades to Oceanside High School East to accommodate the students, and those are expected to cost between $5 million and $7.2 million. The school needs upgrades to the cafeteria to handle the increase in students, according to a report presented to the board.
Collins presented the study from Cordjia Capital Projects Group proposing the improvements to the school.
Robishaw argued the school used to be a Class A school with more students including grade 9 and did not need these upgrades.
The board has been considering school mergers and closures for some time because the school district has seen a decrease in enrollment dropping to fewer than 2,000 students while maintaining 11 buildings.
The district hopes to save $324,019 with the middle school merger.
Split on closing Gilford Butler, Owls Head
The board also took straw votes or non-binding votes on whether to close the smaller Gilford Butler School in South Thomaston and the Owls Head Central School.
Loren Andrews of Cushing argued against closing small community schools. He said they have been successful and are an important part of their communities.
In the non-binding vote, all but Pearce, Emery and Andrews favored closing Gilford Butler.
However, seven board members opposed closing Owls Head.
Board members also wanted to explore combining Owls Head and Gilford Butler students into one school at Owls Head. This would require upgrades to the Owls Head building.
Collins said all of the votes at the meeting simply give the administrators direction from the board. Collins and his team will now do research and gather data on how to best merge the middle schools, return the freshmen to Oceanside East and the options for the smaller schools.
Andrews was upset by the idea of closing schools in communities. He argued this was really motivated by money because Rockland taxpayers got hit this year, but added that a larger regional discussion needs to be had. He also stressed that each decision they made regarding one or two schools had a "domino effect" on students throughout the district.
In particular, he asked what would happen to fifth-grade students from Cushing and Rockland, who are now part of middle schools.
Other schools were also considered for closure. Board member Christine Curtis of South Thomaston said she would favor closing the Cushing school. Andrews opposed that idea.
Lura Libby School in Thomaston was also named for potential closure in the future.
About 20 people attended the meeting.
Steve Roberts of Rockland spoke at the meeting, urging board members to squeeze every bit of value they could out of the tax dollars. He said it is about a fine education for the kids, not what building they are in, and the teaching staff should not be cannibalized to keep redundant buildings.
Jesse Butler of Rockland disagreed, saying the schools matter and serve as a center of the community. Later in the meeting he said the board was making decisions on school closures in an arbitrary manner.
At the beginning of the meeting, Gerald Weinand asked to speak during public comment.
Chairwoman Tess Kilgour said he should have signed up before the meeting started at 5 p.m. He asked if he could sign up now and speak. She finally allowed him to speak.
Weinand said the school district had adopted a strategic plan that called for nine items on a "to do" list before merging or closing schools. The idea was to have a comprehensive plan for managing facilities in the district and it would include analyzing enrollment, staffing, equipment, buildings, and technology needs district-wide and making 10-year improvement plans for buildings.
He asked if that had been done.
Collins said that was a five-year plan adopted eight months ago and it was not expected to be implemented by now.
Weinand said he was not necessarily against the merger, but felt decisions should be based on solid data.
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 122 or email@example.com.
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Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette and news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, who also works for Courier Publications, and two children.
Dunkle has previously served as editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. He has worked as a reporter and photographer in the Midcoast for 15 years.
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