JSMS gets a reprieve

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

RAYMOND — An assortment of alpine and Nordic skis lined the walls while ice skates, helmets and snow goggles are displayed on the folding cafeteria tables. Three women sat on the benches — and discussed the recent reprieve for Jordan Small Middle School (JSMS).

On Saturday, several basketball games were held in the gym, and simultaneously a winter gear sale was taking place in the cafeteria of the Raymond middle school that was recently saved from being shuttered.

Carrie Colby (who organized the weekend fundraiser for the fourth grade’s spring field trip) said she attended both public hearings for the proposed JSMS closure — a plan the Regional School Unit No. 14 Board of Directors had been eying to save an estimated $150,000 in future budgets. Colby said she was “shocked” when the board voted, 8-1, to not pursue the plan.

Raymond resident Candace Woolston, a teacher at Windham Primary School, said JSMS plays a vital role in Raymond, and its closure would have been a hard hit to many residents. The middle school facilities provide a space for community events like local theater and sporting events. Community offerings — like the ones that were going on inside the walls of JSMS over the weekend – are one the reasons she chooses to reside in Raymond.

“If they closed this school, what does Raymond have?” Woolston said. “It would break my heart. It would have been the end of the town, really.”

According to the School Consolidation Plan, which was passed under Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, if a school board decides to close a school, then the town’s voters have the option to pay to maintain and keep open the shuttered building — or portions of the building for community use.

Woolston said the Town of Raymond has already cut its budget as leanly as possible. Shouldering that financial responsibility could have proven difficult for the town and local taxpayers, she said.

Jani Cummings, a first grade teacher at Raymond Elementary School, said she is relieved that RES won’t be renovated to accommodate a K-8 student body.

“The idea of enlarging the RES cafeteria was ludicrous,” she said.

At the same time, any elation is balanced by a grim forecast for the educational budget.

“There’s a sigh of relief — for this year,” Cummings said, adding the necessity for hefty cuts to the school budget is driven by dwindling state funding.

Last year, the Teachers’ Union supported a pay-raise freeze, and saved the RSU 14 about $400,000, Cummings said.  That move was better than giving raises to some, while other educators were given pink slips, she said.

According to JSMS Principal Randy Crockett, the administration in Raymond found a way to save about $50,000 when RES Principal Norma Richards retired in spring 2010.

“We took four people’s jobs and made it into three jobs. It was done as a way to help reduce the budget, and this is preferable to cutting more teaching staff,” Crockett said.

In the coming months, the RSU 14 Board will face the increasingly tough task of preparing the 2011-12 school budget. As spring rolls around — and a picture of Augusta’s budget becomes clearer — the board usually has a better idea of how much state money will be earmarked for the school unit. However, a surge of funding from the state or federal level does not look promising.

At last month’s public hearings, comments from citizens as well as residents who serve on the school board reflect that dismal financial forecast.

Colby said she’s thankful for the board’s decision to keep JSMS open — for the time being. Her children — who are in second and fourth grade at RES — will have the opportunity to attend the middle school with a wing dedicated to state-of-the-art math and science labs.

Her biggest worry was that the RSU would have rung up some unexpected bills while renovating RES.

“I was actually most concerned about the financial picture,” she said. “Spending $300,000 to remodel RES is not saving money. The renovations could have ended up being more expensive than the estimate.”

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