BAR HARBOR — Increasing cooperation between the Conners Emerson and Mount Desert Elementary (MDES) schools was the focus of a joint brainstorming meeting between the two school boards Monday.
When the meeting was proposed, Superintendent Howard Coulter asked the boards to think about small ways to avoid duplicating effort between the two schools without making big structural changes.
“If everything stayed just the way it is – everyone keeps their local schools – what makes sense in terms of a lack of duplication?” Coulter asked.
The two schools already cooperate and share resources in lots of ways, many of which are not obvious to the public, Bar Harbor committee Chair Kristie Losquadro said. In recent years, they have had a joint show choir and shared some sports programs, like track and cross-country.
Across the district, food service directors are beginning to work more closely together. Conners Emerson custodian Peter Alley serves as the point person for all the schools in the district for asbestos management and other building compliance issues.
Coulter pointed to the agreement between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert to share a police chief and increase cooperation between the two police departments. “I’m intrigued by some of the unforeseen advantages” those involved with that project have reported, he said, like police officers getting to know each other better and taking on new responsibilities.
Bar Harbor Councilor Peter St. Germain, who serves as a liaison to the school committee, said when the two towns set up the police chief sharing, they sought advice from counterparts in Falmouth and Cumberland.
“The loudest message they sent to us was, ‘Don’t think that this is going to save you money. It’s not,’” he said.
“They cautioned us, and I caution you all with the same message. This is probably not going to save an awful lot of money; however it facilitates the staff in ways that keep surfacing.”
The conversation also turned to possible future consolidation. MDES Principal Scott McFarland called it “the elephant in the room.”
“We’re talking hybrid projects in our current structure, but I would think that before anyone starts planning big building projects, we need to see where [consolidation] is really gonna go. It just makes sense. I know we’ve talked about it district-wide, but is it something that we explore as two schools?”
If some form of consolidation is on the horizon, McFarland said, “it seems to be less efficient to change structures so [the schools] all match each other” in order to share a few classes or programs.
MDES teacher and Bar Harbor resident Kate St. Denis agreed, calling the proposed ideas for cooperation “too cumbersome” unless a shared middle school, for example, is created.
One option is keeping both schools, but having younger kids at one facility and the older grades at the other.
Coulter said a parallel conversation between the school boards in Southwest Harbor and Tremont initially generated some excitement but decided not to move forward with a large shift after some teachers expressed concern.
“I think that recoiling is something to avoid,” he said. “At some point, it is the board’s role to decide ultimately what makes sense.”
Losquadro agreed that talk of consolidation tends to make community members nervous. She suggested forming a larger working group district-wide to include parents, teachers and other residents to give people a chance to discuss the issues. “What you don’t want is [for] people to panic. Nobody’s suggesting closing of any schools.”
St. Germain said the group working on the police chief sharing agreement benefited from meetings with an outside facilitator.
“You’re the board. It’s, in my opinion, your responsibility to take a lead,” he said. “Bring help in, get some advice, but the boards have to lead the charge.”