READFIELD — A proposal to move fifth-graders from four elementary schools to Maranacook Community Middle School is drawing strong opposition but also some support from the public.
Regional School Unit 38 administrators have presented the idea to the school board as a way to save $63,000 in personnel costs without layoffs, provide more programming to fifth-graders and ease crowding at the Manchester, Mount Vernon, Readfield and Wayne elementary schools.
Several parents and other residents of towns in the district spoke against the proposal at a school board meeting this week. The school board didn’t take a vote.
The administrators’ plan calls for fifth-graders to have their own wing, have their own lunch period and not become part of the multigrade teams at the middle school. However, Mount Vernon mother Diana Dearborn is worried her daughter would have too much exposure to older students, including students at the high school, which is next door.
“What I’m hearing from all of you (is) this is about money,” she said. “This isn’t about our children and what’s best for them.”
Representatives of Manchester Elementary School’s advisory committee said the committee wants more study and input on the proposal before the school board votes. Sue Belz said committee members are concerned about the loss of fifth-graders as role models at the elementary schools, their access to support services at the middle school and the effects of adding about 90 students on the staff and students already at the middle school.
Michelle Delisle, who has children in both fourth and fifth grades at Manchester Elementary, said this year’s fourth-graders would be cheated of their chance to celebrate their last year of elementary school and don’t have enough time to prepare for the transition academically, socially and emotionally.
“The fourth-graders love school, but they can’t wait to be in fifth grade as the leaders of their school,” Delisle said.
Mount Vernon fourth-grader Claire Holman, however, said she and her peers would benefit from the middle school environment, citing the potential for access to foreign language classes and performing arts programs.
“Also, from what I’ve seen, everybody when they move from fifth grade to the middle school is really nervous and scared,” she said. “This would split the transition in school — going to the middle school, and then becoming a middle schooler (in sixth grade).”
Before the school board meeting, Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said the proposal emerged from the administrative team’s efforts to meet one of the goals the school board had set for the 2014-15 budget: to have no increase in spending.
“The budget passed last year by 34 votes,” board Chairman David Greenham, who represents Readfield, said at the meeting. “We definitely heard the voters, so we’re working very hard to try to solve this.”
Their target, however, is $150,000 lower than the $15,724,787 budget the RSU has this year because the district is no longer educating residents of Phoenix House, an adolescent substance abuse treatment center in Augusta. RSU 38 spent $150,000 to educate those students, which was reimbursed fully by the state.
Moving the fifth grade to the middle school would allow the district to eliminate two teaching jobs by balancing the cohorts of students from different towns, which range from nine in a combined fourth-and-fifth-grade class in Wayne to 24 in a single class in Manchester. The RSU would add an education technician at the high school, for net savings of $63,000.
Wolfrom said the elementary schools are beginning to become crowded, another problem that moving the fifth grade could help. If projections hold, the elementary schools will have 587 students, up from 535 last year. To keep class sizes manageable, they would have to add a kindergarten classroom in Mount Vernon and a fifth-grade classroom in Manchester.
The last time the school district estimated the capacity of the elementary schools was in 1994, when it was planning for the construction of the middle school; no estimate for the middle school was available Thursday.
Those capacity figures exceed next year’s projected enrollment by 29 percent to 84 percent, but Wolfrom said schools needed fewer classrooms in 1994 because they were not required to provide as much specialized instruction for students with disabilities, students who are falling behind or students from low-income families.
Mararanacook middle school’s enrollment has been decreasing steadily, from 317 in 2009-10 to 276 this year.
Anticipating objections to putting younger students on the middle school/high school campus, Wolfrom said students of all ages already ride the bus together.
The fifth-grade proposal is one of several cost-saving measures the administration has presented to the school board this budget season.
It had suggested converting middle school sports to intramurals, but parents objected. Instead, the school board has approved a plan to increase activity fees at the middle and high schools and reduce the high school receptionist’s job to four hours per day. A secretary who is in the office full time will take over duties when the receptionist is gone, Wolfrom said.
Other changes in the draft budget include laying off a high school technology teacher, reducing an education technician at the high school and putting off $57,258 in maintenance projects.
The school board on Wednesday approved hiring middle school technology integrationist Diane MacGregor as district technology director to succeed Jan Kolenda. Because high school technology integrationist Nate Savage will begin to cover the middle school as well, the RSU will save $42,000 on the technology team, Wolfrom said.