School merger plan is offered



BAR HARBOR — Consolidation of the five Mount Desert Island and Trenton elementary/middle schools into two K-5 schools and one school for grades 6-8 is being proposed by MDI Regional School System Superintendent Howard Colter.

“I believe there are educational, personnel, professional and financial advantages to this model,” he said in a memo to the school system board in which he outlined his plan.

The idea isn’t new. More than a year ago, Colter asked a group of 16 teachers, administrators and board members to look at the pros and cons of a separate school for all middle school students in the district. They concluded that such a school would provide more academic and extra-curricular options, better preparation for high school and more efficient use of specialist teachers.

Now, for the first time, the superintendent has put forward an actual proposal for creating a common middle school and closing two of the area’s existing elementary schools.

He noted that, for many years, MDI was dotted with a number of “very sweet little village schools.”

“There were reasons why superintendents and school boards in the past came to the conclusion that it made sense to close some of those schools and to think about some compacting,” he said. “This very well could be another time for that same approach.”

Colter said school enrollments have remained basically flat in recent years, and he doesn’t foresee any large increases anytime soon. In fact, he said, with the aging of the local population, there could well be fewer children coming along. And if there are more older people on fixed incomes, school funding could be more of a burden.

Given all that, Colter said, school officials need to be “as honest and as creative and as reasonable as we can be in thinking to the future.”

He hasn’t said which of the existing K-8 schools likely would be closed under his proposal. But it could be the smallest schools, which are Tremont Consolidated and Trenton Elementary. Tremont, with a current enrollment of 115 students, would be left with just 74 if students if grades 6-8 were at another school.

Trenton’s current enrollment is 122. Without grades 6-8, there would be 87 students.

There are 375 students at Conners-Emerson School in Bar Harbor, 190 at Mount Desert Elementary and 145 at Pemetic Elementary in Southwest Harbor.

Under Colter’s proposal, each of the two K-5 schools would have about 310 students, based on current enrollments. The single middle school would have 328 students.

Citing “tons of research,” Colter said there are many advantages to having a separate school for grades 6-8.

“It’s a very special time in a child’s development in terms of the way they think, the way they learn, the way they socialize,” he said.

“If we had a school with teachers who were hired and trained for the middle school approach to instruction and learning, that could be terribly enriching for everyone, and children would have a solid academic experience.”

He said there also would be enough students to have strong programs in such disciplines as music, art, world languages and physical education.

“There is so much we could do if we brought the resources and students together,” he said.

There also would be advantages to reducing the number of elementary schools, he said.

“If we went to two K-5 schools, perhaps one on each side of the island to minimize travel, you would have the opportunity for teachers to informally talk with each other, to work together, observe each other and support each other,” he said.

For example, he said, “You wouldn’t be the only kindergarten teacher in the school. There might be two or three others. You would have peers to engage with.

“I think that would be pretty exciting. And the schools would still be small enough that they would be quite personable.”

Colter said any consolidation or closing of schools would require the approval of voters in all of the towns that would be affected.

“Legally, it’s probably required,” he said. “Politically, I know it’s required that we have buy-in and understanding and support for this from the broader community, not just the school boards.”

The school system board took no action on the consolidation proposal Monday night. Colter said a few board members asked questions and said they would like more details. He plans to provide more information at the board’s meeting next month.

Board member Eric Henry said Tuesday that he thinks it would make sense to have one elementary school on each side of MDI. But he said the board and the entire community need to talk about all of the possible options.

“Hopefully we can have a positive discussion about how best to improve our island community,” he said.

Henry said he knows that whatever changes are made, if any, will not come overnight.

“It’s going to take a number of years to discuss this and bring something forward, and it would be really nice if we could do it in a very positive, open, collegial way.”

Colter said his goal in presenting the proposal was “to get the conversation going in all our communities.”

“I want to hear from people and let them hear from me and begin to think ahead instead of waiting until it’s more of a crisis response rather than an intelligent, thoughtful planning process.”

Under Colter’s proposal, the outer-island towns of Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro and Swans Island would continue to have their own K-8 schools. But he said parents on those islands probably would have the option of sending their children in grades 6-8 to the common middle school on MDI.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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