PENOBSCOT — At the Penobscot School Board meeting on Jan. 8, a group of residents presented a range of options the school could consider in response to low student enrollment and high per-pupil costs at the Penobscot Community School.
“We were basically asked to get information,” said David Jolly, a member of the People’s Forum of Penobscot, which wrote the 56-page report.
Penobscot selectmen asked the forum to start studying the issue of enrollment and school costs in 2016.
In the report “we weren’t saying ‘you should do this or that,’” Jolly said after the School Board meeting. “We just came up with options that we think are worthy of consideration.”
The People’s Forum conducted its study through online research and through interviews with local principals, school board members, real estate agents, superintendents, the state Department of Education’s school finance officer and others with experience on the issue.
The group found that, as of October 2017, there were 72 students at the Penobscot Community School, which teaches grades K-8. Enrollment was 150 in the early 1990s, 100 in 2000 and has hovered at around 70 for the past decade.
“The enrollment has been pretty stable the past 8 to 10 years,” Jolly said. “If it were to drop to 40 or 50, sustaining the school would probably not be feasible.”
The People’s Forum evaluated 19 options for the town and sorted them into three categories.
The first category of options could help the town increase school enrollment. The second category could help reduce school costs and generate income. The third category is made up of options the town could consider if enrollment were to decrease to the point where the school would be unsustainable.
One option the People’s Forum thought could help increase enrollment could be to more widely promote the school.
“What we heard was that people don’t know much about the good things going on at the school,” Jolly said after the meeting.
The People’s Forum found that students at the Penobscot Community School scored higher than any other school on the Blue Hill Peninsula on standardized tests for English language arts. Penobscot students also scored second-highest in math.
“Those scores were well above the state average,” the forum’s report said. “In addition, the school culture, with its emphasis on the values of respect, responsibility, kindness and safety, is very positive.”
“People automatically assume the Blue Hill school is the best,” Jolly said, “so young families figuring out where to live might gravitate to Blue Hill without seriously considering the Penobscot school.”
The school could pay someone on a stipend to promote the school online and through other channels, Jolly proposed.
The People’s Forum also suggested establishing a magnet program, which could attract students from other towns by offering specialized classes. The program might attract tuition-paying students, which would generate income for the school.
Still, members of the People’s Forum and the School Board agree Penobscot isn’t ready for a magnet program just yet.
“A magnet program is going to take resources to establish,” said School Board member Charles Brenton. “I doubt that you would get the returns in tuition from the resources that you put into that magnet.”
Jolly said after the meeting that a magnet program could be an attractive option only “if the employment situation in Penobscot changed.”
For that to happen, more jobs, housing options or both would have to be established to attract younger families with school-age children to live or work in Penobscot.
In Brooklin and Castine, Jolly said, families that commute to work in those towns pay tuition to send their kids to school there, making it easier for them to pick their kids up.
A similar situation could unfold in Penobscot, Jolly said, if the former nursing home there is redeveloped. The nursing home could be developed either into businesses where parents could work or into homes where families could live.
“Done properly, we think it could attract more families with young children to Penobscot, which could increase enrollment,” Jolly said.
The town of Penobscot could work with a development committee and with the owners of the building to apply for grants and generate ideas for redeveloping the property. But there’s a snag: identifying the owner has proven difficult.
“It’s in legal limbo, and has been for a while,” said Jan Carpenter, another member of the People’s Forum.
The nursing home closed last year due to the owner’s financial shortfalls and is now in foreclosure proceedings, Carpenter said. The nursing home had been placed under state receivership, and multiple liens had been placed on the property.
The former Penobscot school teacher said the mortgage-holder for the nursing home grew up in Penobscot and is attempting to re-establish ownership of the property so she can help turn it into something useful for the community. But the process may take a while due to the complicated financial situation.
In the meantime, the People’s Forum suggested the school could save money on energy costs by installing solar panels, LED lighting and energy-efficient windows. Those measures could help reduce the town’s school budget, which dwarfs its municipal budget.
At the Penobscot annual Town Meeting in March, townspeople approved a $1,837,212 school budget. The municipal budget approved earlier that day was $564,000.
Jolly suggested part of the reason for the relatively modest municipal budget could be because Penobscot has a leaner government than other towns such as Castine, which employs more full-time workers.
While the Penobscot Community School’s enrollment situation is common in Maine, not all schools on the Blue Hill Peninsula are experiencing the same issue.
Mark Hurvitt, the superintendent of School Union 93, which includes schools in Penobscot, Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine and Surry, said Surry Elementary School and the Blue Hill Consolidated School are both growing, with 35 new students registering to the latter last summer.
“What we’re really talking about is Castine, Brooksville and Penobscot,” he said. “For some reason, those towns aren’t attracting school-age families at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it in the future.”
Hurvitt attributed the growth of the Surry and Blue Hill schools to their proximity to Ellsworth.
“Ellsworth is a growing town,” he said, “and that spills over.”
If enrollment at Penobscot Community School were to drop significantly, the People’s Forum suggested townspeople could consider sending upper grades to another school, closing the school or creating a regional school.
The regional school option would face stiff resistance from townspeople, said members of the School Board.
School Board Chairman Jerry Markley recalled a time over 15 years ago when towns considered creating a regional middle school. The discussion did not end well.
“It met very stiff resistance from the towns,” he said. “There is very much a territorial sense among the towns.”
Markley also pointed out the need for transportation across vast distances to and from a regional school.
“Look outside, it’s dark right now,” he said at the 6 p.m. meeting while it snowed outside. “This time of year, people do not like to put their kids on a bus and come home this time of night in this kind of weather.”
However, one advantage of a regional school could be a larger student population and more classes and resources available for students. There are currently six eighth-grade students at Penobscot Community School, according to the report.
“When you get to middle school, when kids are entering adolescence, having a larger peer group can be really important,” Jolly said at the School Board meeting.
Jay Corbin, the principal of Penobscot Community School, said he has a different take on school size.
“I feel that small schools make it very easy to identify those students who need an extra hand,” he said after the meeting.
“You get to know the students. Maybe there’s data that shows differently but I haven’t seen that in my experience and my conversations with parents.”
Corbin referred to a report from George Stevens Academy that showed Penobscot alums did just as well academically as students from other schools.
“From what I hear, parents love the school and kids are successful here and beyond,” he said.
Jolly said the discussion of the future of middle school education in Penobscot is separate from the People’s Forum report, but it would be an important conversation to have.
The People’s Forum presented its findings to both the School Board and the town selectmen last week. Carpenter and Jolly said both groups applauded the forum’s efforts, but cannot take action without the direction of the townspeople.
“For them to act on some of these options, it would be very helpful to have clear support from the townspeople,” Jolly said. “That is one of the reasons why we’re planning a public discussion sometime in February to lay out these options and see if there’s support for them.”
Jolly said the discussion will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 7 at the Penobscot Community School. A copy of the People’s Forum report can be found on the town website, www.penobscotmaine.org.
“It will be a public discussion of where to go from here,” Carpenter said.