Raymond School closure public hearing

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

WINDHAM – Despite a few moments of tension and frustration, the second public hearing on the proposed closure of the Jordan Small Middle School appeared to be more civil and more informative than the first one, as a question-and-answer format was established early in the evening.

Community members asked questions — about the school board’s weighted vote, about anticipated budget cuts, and about the district’s standing on an

LETTING HER FEELINGS BE KNOWN — Raymond Elementary School (RES) student, Kristine Lawlor, age 7, holds the letter she wrote to the Regional School Unit No. 14 Board about its recent consideration of a plan to close the Jordan Small Middle School and turn RES into a K-8 facility. Lawlor said she is scared of big kids going to school with her; and she would be sad if the playground gets smaller to accommodate a proposed expansion of the ground-level cafeteria.

approval list for building new schools. A handful of people pitched out some suggestions to fundraising for local education at a time when it is apparent less state and federal funding will be available.

In addition, people shared several ideas of how the two consolidated communities could collaborate. People testified to programs in which both Raymond and Windham students already participate. Those speakers stressed moving away from the “them and us” mentality

“It is not Windham kids. It’s not Raymond kids. It’s a school district,” said Raymond resident Teresa Sadak, who served on the regional consolidation committee.

For many residents from Raymond, the proposal seemed like another in a series of changes where Raymond was asked to submit to the bigger population of Windham. Out of six money-saving options that were studied, the Regional School is currently considering the plan to close the middle school in their community to shave about $150,000 from the school budget

“I thought we were going to table this,” Sadak said to the board. “You need to go back and look at the consolidation plan. Gov. Baldacci’s plan was to lower administrative costs and not to close schools.”

Based on the comments of parents, teachers and students who spoke at the hearing, the majority of people were against the option being discussed — the closure of JSMS and renovation of Raymond Elementary School to accommodate a K-8 school.

In almost equal numbers, speakers adamantly expressed that they opposed the school board considering busing children from North Windham to the two schools in Raymond.

The latter plan was not on the table — but the thought of busing kids to another community elicited as much emotion in parents as the idea of closing the middle school, re-vamping Raymond’s newer elementary school that had been designed specifically for the K-4 age group, and spending money on construction to wind up with one K-8 school hovering near capacity.

At the beginning of the hearing held at Manchester Middle School in Windham, the chairman of the school board tried to set the tone, and veer away from the anti-consolidation comments that occurred a week earlier during the first public hearing, which he did not attend.

“I was in northern Canada with my friends from Raymond. It was a hunting party. We were all armed, and we made it out of the woods alive,” Chairman Toby Pennels said.

“The tension between our communities over consolidation — we get it. The board gets it,” Pennels said, requesting the audience to stick to the topic at hand. “Let’s stay on the issue, and don’t talk about ending consolidation.”

The school districts of Windham and Raymond entered into a consolidation after voters approved the ballot issue in November 2008.

“Let’s talk about the closure of one school that is at half capacity to save money in the budget,” he said.

“I have long standing relationships with many Raymond residents,” the 1977 graduate of Windham High School said. He described summers at camps in Raymond, hunting seasons spent in Raymond’s woods, and friendships that have endured a few decades.

SAVE THE SCHOOL & PLAYGROUND — Kristen Lawlor, age 7, stands in front of the playground at Raymond Elementary School. Lawlor is worried that if the Regional School Unit No. 14 votes to close Jordan Small Middle School, the playground would get even smaller — in order to expand the cafeteria as part of proposed renovations to create one K-8 school. (De Busk Photo)

“If you know anything about me, it would be impossible for me to advocate pillaging your community,” he said.

He briefly explained the format for the evening, adding all comments would end at 8:30 p.m. because the board had several other topics on the agenda. He said if there was still a large group of people who didn’t have a chance to speak by 8:30 p.m., the board would schedule a third public hearing. At approximately 8:20 p.m., with four people in line to speak, Pennels announced the hearing would be over when the remaining people spoke; and there would be no need to hold another public hearing before the upcoming vote that will likely be on the Dec. 8 agenda.

Raymond resident Frank McDermott advocated for the board to put the brakes on the proposal in favor of more focus on the two communities involved in the school consolidation.

“We built the foundation for RSU 14 on quick sand,” he said.

“Let’s take another year to build a foundation. This is sort of a re-marriage,” McDermott said. “Let’s do it right and build a better foundation. What difference is another year going to make? Take it slow. Don’t jump into this right now.”

At the end of the meeting, Raymond resident Carrie Colby, who spoke at the first hearing, said without having toured the upstairs of RES, the board should not be considering the renovation plan.

“Why are we standing here talking? Is it just so you can hear us say we don’t really want it?” Colby asked.

At that point, RSU board member Mike Mack tried to hit home the grim economic forecast and the need to maintain the school unit with an even tighter school budget.

“We are going to continue to get cuts more and more each year. The global economy is going down the tubes,” he said. “We are being proactive” by considering a plan that would lower the budget by an estimated $150,000.

“We have rough ideas — we are trying to weigh it all out. We are trying to find a sensible way to keep our kids educated,” Mack said.

Yet, the testimony during both public hearings proved a percentage of parents and teachers believe there are things that can’t be measured in dollars or decided based on statistics.

Community members recalled the planning stages of constructing RES, and renovating the older school to give academic and liberal arts offerings to the community’s fifth- through eighth-grade population. Many said combining the two schools would subtract from the learning environment of two age groups that would best be served in separate schools on the same campus. Others said wetlands guidelines would make expansion on RES property difficult, if not impossible.

Sue Ellen Gendron, who works as RES’ librarian, spoke in support of the status quo.

“I keep trying to envision the middle school kids in the elementary school. I can’t imagine trying to fit my 6-foot-tall son, who is in eighth grade, into RES. When my son was in fourth grade, he had outgrown the desks and the playground,” Gendron said.

“Please don’t close JSMS. I don’t think that is the answer. Be visionaries. Be the problem solvers we are supposedly teaching our children to become,” she said.

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