School closure public hearing draws emotions

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

RAYMOND — The Nov. 10 public hearing on a proposed school closure for Jordan Small Middle School (JSMS) drew almost 300 people, and brought several Raymond residents who testified to tears — or other forms of emotion — as the majority of people spoke of the need to keep open both schools in their community.

Two mothers of students attending the Raymond schools, Dolly Meeker Nelson and Desiree Pullen Merritt, described their experiences at an over-crowded JSMS in the 1980s.

“Our gym was the cafeteria. The stage was the hallway and the library,” Merritt said, adding she sold her home in Harrison after the birth of her son — who’s now in second grade — so he could attend the award-winning elementary school that had been built here.

“I remember we ate our lunch in our classroom. It was difficult to carry a tray with hot soup from the lunchroom,” said Nelson, who has a child in fifth grade. “I want my son to stay in school here. That’s why I stayed in Raymond — for the schools,” Nelson said.

According to the proposal, the newer school, 10-year-old Raymond Elementary School (RES) would be renovated to accommodate a kindergarten through eighth-grade school. The combined student body would enroll 449 students at a revamped RES, which has a capacity for 458 children.

Currently, kids in kindergarten through fourth grade attend RES. Closing the middle school — which is located across Route 85 from RES — would save $285,000 in the budget of the Regional School Unit No. 14, according to RSU Board member Mike Duffy. The estimates for remodeling are between $285,000 and $300,000; so, savings wouldn’t be seen until the second year after closing the middle school, he said. The proposed construction would be timed to occur while school is not in session during the summer months.

The public had another chance to speak about the school-closure proposal on Wednesday night during a second public hearing held in Windham at Manchester Middle School.

Then, during its regular meeting in December, the school board will vote on whether or not to go forward with the plan, according to Duffy, who told the audience at RES the proposal needed three-fourths of the majority vote in order to move forward.

The nine-member school board has a total of 1,000 voting points, Duffy said. The Windham-based board members have 130 a piece, while Raymond votes are worth 73. This weighted vote was established as part of the consolidation process, he said.

If the board approves the proposed school shutdown, RSU No. 14 must submit the projected savings to the State Department of Education for its approval, he said. The next step is to put before the Raymond voters whether or not they’d like to see the middle school building stay open for community purposes. The taxpayers would be responsible for the amount the RSU No. 14 saves by no longer using the school. Some ideas for the structure include: housing the over-crowded Raymond Village Library there, moving the town offices into the building when it’s vacated, or converting a wing into a teen center or community theater space, Duffy said, adding none of the plans have been studied yet.

“We’re still at the listening stages,” Duffy said of the proposed school closure.

Prior to the Nov. 10 public hearing, Duffy explained to those present that the basic concept was to keep kids going to school in the community where they lived. He said the most likely plan was to house kindergarten through fourth-grade students downstairs, and use the second story of RES for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

Most people asked the school board to look at the plan a little closer. People urged the board to look for other ways to save money. Raymond Elementary School teachers — as well as those from the middle school that faces possible shut-down — invited the board to tour the two schools to better understand how they function for the students better as two separate schools than one combined with the other “idling.”

Children who testified said they loved their middle school, and didn’t want to lose that space and share it with a younger generation. While the younger generation, still attending RES, where the public hearing was held in its gymnasium, said they couldn’t wait to be old enough to go to JSMS, and begged the board to please not close the school.

“It’s a horrible idea to close JSMS. Changing the cafeteria and the gym will cost a lot of money. It’s not a win-win situation,” sixth grader David Young said.

“What I heard in Raymond is exactly what I thought I would hear. It’s no surprise people think the plan is moving too fast,” RSU Board member Alizah Shriver said. “That’s what I walked away with from last Wednesday’s meeting. We need to slow down and really delve into the costs.”

Shriver said she thinks December might be too soon to incorporate the proposed school closure into the 2011-12 budget, which runs from July 1 to June 30. Like some community members, Shriver questioned the reliability of predicting the population decrease in Raymond, especially “when we’re talking about something so drastic” as renovating a school that was designed for elementary-age developmental stages.

Duffy said the board may decide to delay the proposal “if there is not enough support” from stakeholders in the communities.

“I am a board member who thinks: If there is going to be savings, it should come sooner or later,” he said.

RSU No. 14 could allocate money for renovations in the upcoming budget; therefore, it would be 2012-13 when savings occurred by maintaining only one school building in Raymond.

“But, I don’t want us to rush into it and do it wrong. I want to do it right,” he said.

During the hearing, there were about a half-dozen times when residents of Raymond questioned not only the proposal, but also the recent consolidation with the larger community of Windham — to the point of declaring the best thing to do was to separate and end the consolidation. Voters in the two communities approved consolidation at the polls in 2008.

According to Duffy, the state law does not have any provisions for a town to un-do the consolidation process. The Maine State Legislature would have to add such a provision to the consolidation law in order for such a move to take place, he said.

Shriver sits on the Communications Committee, which has been working on ways to improve the relations between the two towns.

Both Shriver and Duffy said the board is aware there is discontent over consolidation.

Meanwhile, Shriver said the Raymond Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) President Abby Davis has been leading “an intense communication effort to keep people educated and informed about the school-closure proposal. There has been a lot of positive dialogue. The PTO has encouraged residents to speak out on the plan.”

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