Facing a $1.6 million budget shortfall, Regional School Unit 13 is considering combining the Thomaston and Rockland middle schools this coming academic year to partially fill the gap.

Superintendent Lew Collins said the move will not only save money — a yearly ballpark estimate of $400,000 — but will also improve programs and strengthen courses, such as world language and science.

Arts educators shared between the schools would also be able to teach in one location, rather than splitting time at each school.

If adopted, sixth- and seventh-grade students from Thomaston, Rockland and Cushing will attend the Thomaston Grammar School building, housing a total of 250 students. Cushing fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders already attend the school.

Cushing and Thomaston fifth-graders will also attend the Thomaston school, but Rockland fifth graders will remain in Rockland.

The South School population, including Rockland fifth-graders, will move to the middle school building, and South School will not be used, Collins said.

The Rockland kindergarten through fifth-grade population is about 350 students.

St. George and Owls Head would remain the same.

Four to five jobs could be cut, said Collins.

Collins said the district is looking to maintain programs and said with fixed costs increasing each year, less state revenue, and Gov. Paul LePage's proposed budget calling for districts to pay a share of teacher retirement, "it's a bill we can hardly afford."

A public forum will be held at the Rockland District Middle School Tuesday, March 19.

The budget validation referendum will be June 11, following budget workshops and proposals in April and May.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.