MADISON — The school board meeting room on Monday night couldn’t hold the number of people who came to protest the possibility of Athens seventh- and eighth-graders being relocated to the junior high school in Madison.

School Administrative District 59 Superintendent Todd LeRoy emphasized that the idea of moving about 35 Athens students to Madison Area Junior High School next year was just that, an idea.

“If the board decides to not go that route, that’s fine; but my job is to put all the options in front of them so that they can make the choices,” he said.

The idea of reorganizing the seventh- and eighth-graders has infuriated residents who say they cherish Athens Elementary School’s close-knit learning environment. Some said they view the idea as a first step toward closing the entire school, which serves about 150 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

“Leave Athens alone. It’s perfect the way it is,” said Karen Corson, an Athens school board member.

The proposal originally was supposed to come up at a February budget meeting, but Athens residents last week obtained a copy of the district’s brainstorming material about the possible reorganization.

School board members listened to comments from district residents for more than two hours on Monday and ultimately voted to table the issue.

Corson said an Athens fact-finding group is gathering information about the town’s options if it were to secede from the district. She said the Athens group will determine how residents feel about possibly withdrawing and outline what must happen logistically if the town were to join another nearby district.

She described the Athens school as a family. From the time they’re 4 years old, Athens students know every other student and teacher at the school, she said. The older students are taught to be watchful mentors, and students tend to do well academically.

“Athens is the perfect size. It is a school where everybody knows everybody,” Doug Malloy, of Athens, said at the meeting.

LeRoy said he understood the value of a close-knit school, but he pointed to the reality of funding. The district is trying to fill a $400,000-to-$600,000 gap left by the recent secession of Starks.

Reorganizing seventh- and eighth-grade Athens students — while relocating two Athens teachers to fill positions of Madison teachers who are retiring — would save about $135,000, LeRoy said. That amount includes about $16,000 to $20,000 from merging extracurricular activities.

The Athens students can be absorbed at the Madison junior high without hiring new teachers, LeRoy said. Also, if Athens students were to join the Madison school, the Athens school would become eligible for federal money from the Rural Education Achievement Program.

“The reality is we’re living in an environment right now where the economy is not well,” LeRoy said. “I can’t imagine going to (residents) and saying we need a whole lot more money.”

He said it’s also “completely not true” that the district is considering closing the Athens school, particularly as it is looking into installing a new heating system and roof there.

Troy Emery, Madison chairman, echoed the sentiment. “What I would like to see is that rumor get squashed, because I feel it’s driving a wedge in this district that doesn’t need to be there,” he said.

Madison Area Junior High School Principal Bonnie Levesque told the crowd of more than 60 people to keep an open mind.

“I hear your pain and I understand the emotion and the frustration, but look ahead and don’t fill your glass with negatives. Fill some of it with positives for the kids,” she said.

Residents, though, said moving seventh- and eighth-graders would affect education quality.

Last year’s valedictorian of Madison Area Memorial High School, Krysta Moulton, is from Athens and studies at Harvard University. She sent a letter to the board, which her sister, Kassie, read aloud.

In the letter, Moulton said: “Wasteful spending must be stopped, but money we spend to ensure that our students’ education is the best it can be is certainly not wasted.”

This year another Athens student, Matt McClintock, holds the top academic honor. On Monday he was named the 2011-12 Gatorade Maine Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, and this season he won the Class C state title with the fastest time of any runner in any class. He is eying the Olympics.

In an interview, McClintock, 18, said it isn’t a coincidence that many Athens students excel academically. The small student population helps, as does a greater feeling of student accountability, he said.

“This is a school district. Their job is to educate the students first to the best of their abilities, and shipping these kids off to Madison is not doing that job,” he said.

McClintock, who will attend Purdue University in Indiana this fall, said he plans to study secondary education in part because, in seventh and eighth grades, he helped take care of Athens’ kindergartners in the mornings. He wouldn’t have had that experience elsewhere, he said.

His mother, Lisa McClintock, said she wants other students to get the same quality of education that her children received.

“I’d love to give my husband and I all the credit, but I can’t. A lot of it is community-based,” she said. “We all work together in this area to keep our kids on the right track.”

“Athens Elementary challenged me academically and provided opportunities to build a strong work ethic through sports and other programs,” said Kate Cooley, who attended the Athens school and now sends her daughter to pre-kindergarten there. The school is “producing successful students. A transition to Madison is not needed and would hurt the Athens students and the Athens community.”

One Cornville couple bought property in Athens specifically to send their daughter to school there. When Cornville Elementary School closed, Mark and Jessica Franzose looked at the school options around them, including private school, and settled on the public one in Athens. Mark Franzose said his family based the decision on the education quality and respectfulness of students in Athens.

“I’ve never been in a school where the older kids held the doors for the younger kids and made sure they had straws in their milk,” Mark Franzose said, whose daughter is in first grade. “Education is the last place I would cut, not the first.”

LeRoy said students would get an equal education whether they attended school in Athens or Madison. Being in Madison for seventh and eighth grade could help Athens students transition into high school, he said.

The junior high also would offer more extracurricular activities and opportunities for social interactions, he said.

“Yes, a small school is a wonderful thing. I think Athens has done a wonderful job. I don’t doubt that, but I think our junior high has done a wonderful job as well,” he said.

In terms of other cost-saving measures, LeRoy said the district is examining moving the central office into the junior high. The move could save about $15,000 per year. In addition to other things, the district is examining cutting some funding for professional development and employee travel.

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