DEER ISLE — Should Deer Isle-Stonington send the island’s high school students elsewhere for secondary education or should the high school stay open?
Those are questions voters will be asked during a nonbinding referendum on Tuesday, Jan. 29.
Polls at both town offices will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
There is a public information meeting on Saturday, Jan. 26, at 9 a.m. at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School.
Shrinking enrollment has led Deer Isle-Stonington’s per-pupil education costs to be among the three highest for Maine public schools, according to Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington. Union 76 includes Community School District 13, which consists of the Deer Isle-Stonington elementary and high schools.
In 2016, high school education costs were $24,000 per student, according to Maine Department of Education figures.
Island residents, School Board members, parents and town officials began meeting as the Future of Our Schools Committee last July to research the issues and form a plan.
Last month, the committee issued a report on the findings, which is available online at http://www.su76.org/our-schools/csd-13.
“It is really important that people read the report,” said Community School District 13 Chairwoman Jane Osborne. “There is a lot of information in it that will help inform their vote. It is really important that people vote.”
Osborne said that while the referendum is not binding but “advisory, the School Board is committed to using the results to determine how to move forward.”
The ballot features two questions with two options for each.
Article 1 asks voters to decide whether to “close the high school and send students off island” or “keep the high school open.”
According to the committee’s final report, if the high school is to remain open, the School Board intends to remodel both the high school and the elementary school.
Thus, Article 2 asks voters if the district should continue to operate separate elementary and high school buildings or if high school students should be moved into the elementary school while keeping a wing of the existing high school building that houses the gym and shop classroom open.
No matter the results on Tuesday, the towns would need to hold another referendum for a final vote on closing the school or borrowing money to make renovations, according to a final report of the committee.
Closing the school would entail sending students to either Bucksport or Ellsworth High School, according to the report. Last year, there were 108 students enrolled at the Deer Isle-Stonington High School.
George Stevens Academy, located in Blue Hill, is the nearest school geographically, but the committee stated that since GSA is a private school it won’t guarantee acceptance of all Deer Isle-Stonington students.
“Because transportation costs involved in giving students school choice would be cost-prohibitive, the board would seek a contract with one high school, most likely Bucksport High School or Ellsworth High School,” the report stated.
The committee determined costs for each possibility.
Sending students away is the least expensive option. Secondary education costs are projected at $1,601,825, according to the report. That includes estimated transportation costs for high school students of $287,200.
That option would result in a per-pupil education cost of $16,018. That’s derived from dividing the total secondary education costs by 100. The high school has been averaging 80 to 100 students in recent years.
Secondary education costs for option 2, moving students to the elementary school and keeping one wing of the high school open, are projected to be $1,733,885.
Moving the high school to the elementary school would result in an estimated per-pupil cost of $17,338.
If the island were to keep students in the high school building and begin renovations, the anticipated total for secondary education would be $2,210,053. That figure includes an anticipated $334,939 for debt service on a bond to renovate the high school building.
Keeping 9th-12th grade students in the high school and renovating the building would result in an estimated per-pupil cost of $22,100.
Ultimately, if everything stays the same, taxpayers are looking at an annual education budget —elementary through secondary — of $6,690,476.
Moving the high school students into the elementary school would reduce that $6.7 million to $6,090,041.
A total education budget with high school students elsewhere wouldn’t be much less: $6,058,896.
Projected transportation costs increase from $352,600 if high school education stays on the island to $639,800 if it’s done elsewhere.
Another issue for Deer Isle-Stonington, as with most Maine schools, is student performance or lack thereof.
School data shows that the number of students reaching grade level proficiency over the last several years is below average.
“Local businesses tell us that some students entering the workforce are lacking basic skills,” the summary stated. “These concerns contributed to difficulties in voters passing the 2015-16 school budget and began three years of school budget reductions.”
Superintendent Elkington said Monday, “For the last five years there have been concerns within the CSD that we spend too much money on educating students in CSD 13 and that the quality of our results need to improve.”
“Over the last 33 months, when I became superintendent, we have been working hard to clean up dysfunction and to get on the right path instructionally to improve our students’ academic results, which we feel we are on the right path to do,” Elkington said.
The district completed a strategic plan last year, he said. The Future of Our Schools committee has been working “morning, noon and night” to involve the entire community in a plan.
“Next week the district will make an informed decision and the first of several votes to help determine the CSD’s direction for the next two decades,” Elkington said.
Of course, there are other questions besides transportation, performance and costs if high school students are sent elsewhere.
Deer Isle-Stonington’s high school gym has been the spot for large gatherings from the community-wide high school prom to the annual Men Who Cook fundraiser to funerals. That’s not to mention basketball games.
Members of the committee include Bobbi Billings, community member, Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings, Deer Isle-Stonington High School Principal Dennis Duquette, Superintendent Elkington, Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher, School Board member Skip Greenlaw, parent Kim Hutchinson, parent and School Board member Tracie Morey, School Board Chairwoman Jane Osborne, teacher and parent Mary Penfold, teacher Terry Siebert, David Witham, a construction management consultant, and Lynne Witham, head of school.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that George Stevens Academy has a competitive admissions process. It does not.