June 24, 2010

Wales school closing

WALES -- Regional School Unit 4 board members voted Wednesday to close Wales Central School, a move that would send the small town's youngest students to Litchfield for kindergarten and first and second grades.

The board's vote at a meeting Wednesday night met the two-thirds threshold needed to shut down a school.

The closure would happen at the end of the 2010-11 school year, but Wales residents could vote before then to keep the school open. That move, however, would require that Wales' 1,500 residents assume the school's operating costs on their own, without the help of RSU 4 partners Litchfield and Sabattus.

The district estimates about $212,000 could be saved by closing the Wales school and busing the students to Litchfield's Libby-Tozier School. The savings would come largely from cutting the positions of a secretary and a custodian, and eliminating costs for heating oil, electricity, phones and other operational items.

No administrative positions would be cut, since Libby-Tozier, Wales Central and Sabattus Primary schools will share a principal starting in September.

The district has yet to finalize the savings figure with the Maine Department of Education, a necessary part of the school closure process.

Board members on Wednesday were deciding between closing either the Wales school or the Libby-Tozier School. The district estimated about $194,000 could have been saved by closing Libby-Tozier.

By keeping it open, though, the district is likely to have to spend about $155,000 to upgrade the 1950s building, according to an architectural firm's building analysis. Those upgrades include changes needed to bring the building up to fire code and to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The architects recommend making those building improvements during the building's first year of housing both the Litchfield and Wales students.

"I think that is poor stewardship in that respect to ask taxpayers to support an additional burden that they would not have to if the decision was reversed," said Robert English, the RSU 4 board chairman and a Wales resident.

If the Wales school were to remain open, the first-year upgrade costs would be $80,000, with the potential for a $650,000 addition needed five years down the road, according to the architects, from Smith Reuter Lull.

Board members on Wednesday appeared convinced that one of the district's buildings would have to close in order to keep the district budget balanced. But Litchfield member Scott Weeks recommended that RSU 4 close its central administrative office and move those functions elsewhere.

"I have this huge fear that five to 10 years down the road, we're going to need classroom space," Weeks said. "I'm going to shoot myself if we just close a building and then we have to build another one for millions of dollars."

Sabattus member Robert Gayton said that closing either of the two primary schools -- both are nearing 60 years old -- would eliminate one set of building-related headaches for RSU 4.

"By doing what we need to do now, it's solving a problem that we won't have to solve later," he said.

Regardless of Wednesday's decision, RSU 4 is moving ahead with a major shuffling of students in September that will affect Libby-Tozier and Wales Central.

The 1,600-student district will locate all students in grades three through five at Litchfield's Carrie Ricker School, and all middle school students at Sabattus Central School, which will be renamed Oak Hill Middle School.

Those moves will leave Wales Central School with six fewer grade levels, educating only students in kindergarten through second grade. It will also shave one grade level from Libby-Tozier's enrollment, making it a prekindergarten-through-second-grade school.

Sabattus Central will become a middle school, transferring its students in third, fourth and fifth grades to Carrie Ricker. Carrie Ricker will add third-grade students, while losing its students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades to the newly named Oak Hill Middle School.

Matthew Stone -- mstone@centralmaine.com

623-3811 ext. 435

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