Parents voice concerns over Grade 5 to LRMS plan

Three SAD 61 forums have been scheduled to discuss with the public district facilities options for short and long-range planning: • Tuesday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. Sebago Elementary School • Wednesday, Jan. 21, 6:30 p.m., Stevens Brook Elementary School in Bridgton • Thursday, Jan. 22, 6:30 p.m., Songo Locks School in Naples

Three SAD 61 forums have been scheduled to discuss with the public district facilities options for short and long-range planning:
• Tuesday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. Sebago Elementary School
• Wednesday, Jan. 21, 6:30 p.m., Stevens Brook Elementary School in Bridgton
• Thursday, Jan. 22, 6:30 p.m., Songo Locks School in Naples

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer
When Al Smith arrived as SAD 61’s new superintendent of schools, one of the first projects he was handed was to find a solution to overcrowding at Songo Locks School.
The night he was introduced as Dr. Kathleen Beecher’s successor, Smith listened to directors debate whether Crooked River School should be reopened as an elementary school — to house Grades 4 and 5 — to ease the space crunch at Songo Locks.
Officials estimated that to reopen the facility would cost $557,314, plus programs — such as Adult Education, the alternative high school program (presently, 24 students are enrolled) and Special Ed — occupying the school building would need to be moved, some possibly to the “White House” on the high school campus, others elsewhere.
In the end, the idea was nixed.
Redistricting was another option, but few Naples families — residing on the edge of town lines — embraced the idea of sending their children to either Sebago Elementary or Stevens Brook Elementary (each school had available space).
So, the new superintendent developed a new option — utilize available space at Lake Region Middle School and move all district fifth graders to the facility’s lower level, which is currently occupied by Grade 6.
Sixth graders would be moved to the building’s main floor, while Grades 7-8 would be upstairs on the top floor.
To accommodate an extra 140-150 students in the building, LRMS would expand the number of lunch periods from three to four, which would add about 20 minutes to the current lunch program.
LRMS can accommodate 600 students; present school enrollment is about 400.
Fifth graders would have their own recess area.
The cost to move Grade 5 would be a one-time $102,000 and an additional $30,000 yearly to cover the addition of one staff member and another bus route.
Monday, Superintendent Smith was set to unveil the proposal for general discussion amongst the school board, but the workshop meeting turned into a public informational session as concerned parents filled the Great Room at Lake Region Vocational Center.
Word of the proposal reached Facebook and swept like wildfire.
Smith welcomed parental interest, pointing out that several points and concerns raised during the nearly two and one-half hour meeting were “insightful” and “helpful.”
The superintendent noted to the crowd that his intention was to hold community forums in all three towns (see above list) to outline the proposal and seek out feedback. He emphasized there was no intention to keep the idea secret.
How the plan would work
Through his own past experiences, Superintendent Smith has seen successes of a Grade 5-8 setup.
What would be the benefits, beyond easing space as Songo Locks?
• The move would create seven Grade 5 classes. The average class size would be 20 or 21.
Based on current Grade 4 enrollment figures, next year’s district-wide fifth grade group totals 146.
Newly-created space at other district schools could be used for special education services, Title 1 services, student center, psychologist’s space and pre-kindergarten.
One parent questioned whether the move of Grade 5 was simply an attempt to add pre-kindergarten? While Smith admitted he is a big supporter of Pre-K and hopes SAD 61 may be able to add the program in the future (it has been mentioned in budget talks over the past few years, but was cut from the essential service list as directors pared the price tag down to a level they believed taxpayers would accept — it could return in 2016-17 budget talks), it was not the driver behind the move.
• The move would allow fifth graders to access educational programming they currently do not receive such as expanded music and art, as well as some foreign language time.
Grade 5 and 6 teachers would be able to collaborate regarding a smoother transition for students between grade levels. Being in the same building, teachers could also coordinate subject areas better.
• High achieving students could access greater educational challenges since higher-grade levels are in the same building.
Smith reiterated that the plan calls for all, not just fifth grade students from Songo Locks, to move to LRMS, along with their teaching teams, thus ensuring educational consistency and equality.
Parents speak out
There was no real support for the Grade 5 plan from parents. Concerns included:
• Putting fifth graders at a bus stop and on a bus with older students. Smith said the plan would call for fifth graders to sit in the front of the bus, and another bus run would be added to insure a “reasonable” amount of bus travel.
Smith has been involved in a Grade 5-8 setup, and noted that he did not experience an increase in busing issues when adding fifth graders with older students.
A spin-off to this concern was parents suggesting the need to prevent kids from growing up too quick. One parent noted that when the district recommended moving Grade 6 to the middle school, officials said sixth graders would be separated from older students to address the “growing up too quick” concern. Now, sixth graders attend school dances.
• Rush to judgment? When school officials said they would like to make a decision on the Grade 5 plan by February, parents felt it was too quick. At the start of the presentation, Superintendent Smith said the school board could either move on the option for next year or keep the status quo and continue to study options.
School Board Chairman Janice Barter clarified that the February timeframe was a target because directors start to shape the upcoming budget, and any type of move — be it the Grade 5 plan or again taking a look at Crooked River repurposing — those costs would be needed to be figured in the proposed budget.
Directors felt that upcoming community forums will be telling in how district parents feel about the proposal and ultimately guide them on a decision.
• One parent questioned whether LRMS is ready for an influx of 140 to 150 new students in wake of “administrative questions” and “educational challenges” there right now. Parents wondered if school officials have taken a close look as to why a number of middle school teachers have resigned over the past few years, and if the administrative team is ready to take on another class.
• Building more space is a better option? Within three to five years, SAD 61 will need to consider constructing additions either at a current facility or entertain the idea of building a new elementary school.
A few problems exist with this scenario.
First, unless there is a change in the state’s educational funding formula, SAD 61 taxpayers will need to shoulder construction costs. Already on the books is the high school renovation, as well as some remaining debt service in SAD 61.
Two, to build an addition would likely cost in the range of $8 to $10 million, Facility Committee member Phil Shane estimated. The school district would need to purchase additional land from an abutter at the Songo Locks site to expand. SAD 61 does own additional land at the Crooked River School site, so expansion there could be a possibility if directors “repurpose” the facility.
Both Songo Locks and Crooked River are starting to creep up in age. SLS is 20 years old, and CRES is 30. With age will come the need to renovate and bring some areas up to present codes. Translation — more money.
Construction will take time to complete.
• If Grade 5 is moved to LRMS, where will people park? One parent said she dropped off her husband near the school because of a disability, and then she had to park nearly a mile away just to attend a special event at LRMS.
Shane said more parking could be added on site. While the district owns land between LRMS and the high school softball field on Kansas Road, most of the property is wetland. Property to the west would need to be purchased.
Parking and traffic control are big problems at Songo Locks. Shane said to correct the problems, SAD 61 would likely need to invest about $800,000.
Superintendent Smith reminded parents that whatever path SAD 61 follows to address its classroom space and infrastructure needs, they come at a cost. Smith says he wears two hats — one, he is an advocate for children and will look to provide them the quality educational programming they deserve and need; and two, he knows a balance exists between needs and the ability of taxpayers to pay the costs.
Smith left Monday’s workshop encouraged. He liked the fact so many parents turned out for the meeting and were willing to speak their minds in a calm, constructive manner. He hopes to see more parents at upcoming community forums to help guide the district on these matters, as well at budget voting time.
“How many people attended your last meeting?” one parent asked.
“Two,” Barter answered.

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