Faced with an overflow crowd in strong opposition to the proposed consolidation this fall of Georges Valley High School and Rockland District High School, the Regional School Unit 13 board voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to put a stop to any merger in 2010.

The board agreed, however, to hold a series of forums over the next month to gather public, staff and student input before deciding in February whether to consider further study of the general concept of high school consolidation.

Board member Jamie Doubleday of Thomaston said that at some point the high schools will have to consolidate, but a few months is not enough time for such a “huge, huge” change.

“I know we are facing significant financial constraints but we can’t rush into this type of upheaval,” Doubleday said.

She said she was concerned about the process and the lack of public input before a recommendation was made by the High School Study Group. A group consisting of RSU 13 Superintendent Judy Lucarelli, two principals, two teachers and two board members met regularly beginning at the start of school in September and came up with a recommendation to have eighth- and ninth-grade students assigned to the building used by GVHS in Thomaston, and sophomores, juniors and seniors assigned to RDHS.

Board member Sally Carleton of Owls Head said she has listened to the public’s concerns.

“We need to slow this down,” Carleton said.

Later she said people probably were in shock when they learned of the recommendation by the High School Study Committee.

Board member Steven Dyer of Rockland said he could not make a decision on the matter without seeing financial comparisons.

Board member George Emery of St. George, who served on the study committee that made the recommendation, said the current system was not working.

“To carry on as we are is not the way to go,” he said, citing poor student performance.

He said there is a lot of duplication with the two high schools and the number of offerings will decline without consolidation, given the financial situation. He acknowledged that the issue of sports and the consolidation of teams would be a difficult thing for people to swallow.

Emery said, however, that he realized many of the citizens opposed to the consolidation are from St. George and he would listen to them.

The vote to forgo a vote in February and instead simply vote on whether to further study the concept of consolidation was 11-2. Board members James Kalloch and Josiah Wilson voted against the motion.

Wilson said he voted against the motion because he opposes the movement toward consolidation and school closures.

Kalloch, who was the other RSU 13 board member on the study committee, made the formal presentation to the board at Thursday night’s meeting. He said the education of the students was the first and foremost concern. He said that the consolidation would be a starting point for the proposed Many Flags, One Campus project.

During the public comment session at the beginning of the meeting, parents and students spoke in opposition to the planned consolidation for the fall 2010.

Bill Reinhardt, the chairman of the St. George Select Board, said the board discussed the matter at its meeting this week and maintained that it should deal with the consolidation the same way it would deal with a proposed school closing and allow the public to vote.

Lucarelli said that while the board could hold an advisory referendum, assignment of classes would be a board decision. State law mandates a vote if a school is to be closed.

Reinhardt also voiced the board’s concern about the upcoming RSU 13 budget for 2010-2011. He urged the school board to scrutinize every cost to reduce the burden on municipalities.

RSU 13 is facing at least a $2.5 million gap between expected costs and projected revenues for 2010-2011.

Don Choquette of St. George also took aim at both the consolidation proposal and the district’s finances. Choquette said he supported the eventual consolidation of the high schools but dismissed the possibility of doing it this fall.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I feel like we are in front of a freight train. I’m willing to stand up in front of it for the people of the RSU.”

Erik Lausten of Rockland said the proposed closing of the MacDougal School appears to have precipitated the shuffling of grades, leading to the high school proposal. He said maybe the MacDougal School should be kept open for another year.

Michelle Peaco of Rockland said she had three children in different grades in the district and all would be affected by the various changes being proposed. She said she could not support the closure of the MacDougal School if it snowballs into the other changes.

Michelle Philbrook of Rockland said the plan would create two transitions for students rather than the one from eighth to ninth grade. She also said fewer activities for students could worsen the problem of childhood obesity and youth drug use.

The board voted in November to close the MacDougal School and Rockland residents will vote on the closure Tuesday, Feb. 9. The election will be held at city hall from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The polling location was moved to city hall because the recreation center renovations will not be completed by then.

Julia Sell, a sophomore at GVHS, presented the board with a petition signed by 450 students in opposition to the high school consolidation. Several students attended Thursday night’s meeting with green pins to show support for keeping the high school in Thomaston.

Former Rockland District Middle School Principal Tom Mellor said the plan was moving too fast, noting it took three years of study before Rockland District Junior High School converted to a middle school system.

The study committee considered nine main options. Those included keeping both RDHS and GVHS operating as they have been; separating the high schools by specialized focus of study; separating the high schools into a traditional high school and an experiential high school; consolidating the two high schools into one at RDHS; consolidating them into one high school on the campus of the Thomaston schools; having ninth- and 10th-graders attend school at GVHS and 11th- and 12th-graders attend at RDHS; having seventh through ninth grades at GVHS and 10th through 12th grades at RDHS; and having a high school with ninth and 10th grades being a traditional high school and 11th and 12th grades being an experiential high school.

The remaining option was the one that was recommended — to have eighth- and ninth-graders housed at GVHS and 10th through 12th grades at RDHS.

This plan met all the goals being sought by the High School Study Group. Those goals include expanding learning opportunities, fiscal responsibility, efficient use of resources and avoiding duplication.

One benefit of the recommended plan would be to ease the often difficult transition that most high school students across the county face, the transition from eighth grade to the high school, Kalloch told the board.

There would be less flexibility in courses offered to the ninth-graders compared with what they can take at the existing high schools. For the upper grades, however, a broader choice of courses could be offered, the superintendent said. A broader choice of courses has been one request made by parents from both current high schools, she said.

The recommended plan does not require extensive renovations to buildings. One exception would be upgrades to science laboratories, which Lucarelli said would be needed regardless of the consolidation. The recommended plan would result in about 20 more students at GVHS than are currently educated in that building with 40 to 50 more students at the RDHS building. This would result in about 500 students in the RDHS building and 320 students at GVHS.

The recommended plan would also result in Rockland District Middle School being used for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders. If the MacDougal School closes next year, kindergarten and first-grade students will be assigned to the South School in Rockland. The fifth grade, now educated at South School, was already proposed to be shifted to the attached RDMS building. One criticism of that move, however, is that it would create overcrowding and eliminate a dedicated art room and convert the stage to a classroom.

The removal of the eighth grade from RDHS would have alleviated that overcrowding problem.

Thomaston Grammar School, which educates students in grades five through eight from Thomaston and Cushing, would have been changed to grades five through seven.

The St. George School, which educates students in kindergarten through eighth grade, would not have changed.

The first public forum on the consolidation of the high schools is set for Monday, Jan. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at RDHS. The others are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 13 at GVHS; Wednesday, Jan. 20 at Thomaston Grammar School; Tuesday, Jan. 26 at the St. George School; and Wednesday, Jan. 27 at Rockland District Middle School.

In addition, the various committees of the RSU 13 board will hold meetings on different aspects of the consolidation. Those meetings will all begin at 5:30 p.m. at the McLain School in Rockland. The activities committee will meet Monday, Jan. 11; the facilities and transportation committee will meet Tuesday, Jan. 12; the policy committee will meet Tuesday, Jan. 19; the activities committee will meet again Thursday, Jan. 28; and the curriculum committee will meet Tuesday, Feb. 2.

The full school board will meet again on Thursday, Feb. 4.

Faculty and student meetings have also been scheduled.