BRUNSWICK — The School Board on Wednesday night voted to take over a struggling Falmouth alternative school for behaviorally and academically challenged students.
The move shifts oversight of the 30-year-old REAL School from Regional School Unit 14, which services Windham and Raymond, to the Brunswick School Department.
Although programming initially will remain at the school’s Mackworth Island campus, Brunswick administrators say they plan to move the REAL School –which stands for Relevant, Experiential, Authentic Learning – to Brunswick Landing in as soon as two years.
The unanimous vote March 23 followed a frantic two weeks of work by School Department staff, spearheaded by the REAL School’s former director, Pender Makin, now assistant superintendent of schools in Brunswick.
According to Makin, RSU 14 administrators went to Mackworth Island March 11, and informed school staff of their decision to close the school’s special education program.
The school effectively operates in two parts: an alternative school, for students who have not been successful in a traditional school setting, and a special education school, which serves “students who require specialized instruction and clinical mental health treatment throughout their school days,” according to REAL School’s website.
Both programs receive student referrals from school districts all over southern Maine. RSU 14 will continue to operate the REAL School’s alternative school.
The reason for closing the special education school, according to Makin, is that after this year’s graduating class, RSU 14 would not actually have any of its own students in the program.
“So they would essentially be left in the position of managing a separate program for 35 out-of-district students,” she said. REAL School staff had effectively “all gotten their pink slips,” she added, on March 11, when the decision was announced.
Makin found out about the decision the following Monday. She said that as the former director, with 13 years of experience, she was initially crushed.
“This was an unprecedented, sad, shocking turn of events for them,” she said. But it also put the Brunswick School District in a tight position.
Brunswick sends five students to the REAL School, paying about $42,000 in out-of-district tuition for each. Suddenly, they had nowhere to go.
That Monday, School Department Business Manager Jim Oikle started crunching numbers, seeing what it would cost if Brunswick decided to just take over the REAL School’s special education program.
Using the assumption that the school would support about the same number of students, he found that the move would actually be cost-neutral, if not beneficial.
According to the analysis he presented the School Board Wednesday night, total expenses for operating the program would round out to just under $1.7 million.
But after revenue from out-of-district students and cost efficiencies are factored in, the total benefit of taking over the program came out to almost $2 million: a nearly $300,000 estimated budget benefit for the district.
The School Department would run the program like an enterprise fund, similar to food services, Makin said, meaning it would not be part of the school budget required to be approved by the Town Council.
“This sounds like a win-win scenario for me,” board member Jim Grant said.
Makin said the biggest risk in taking on the program would be if it doesn’t attract the same number of revenue-paying, out-of-district students.
But, she said, the REAL School is “an existing school that does this work very, very well … it has an intact cohort of (students) that have nowhere to go.”
The plan, as it now stands, is to maintain the special education program in Falmouth for the next school year, likely with the same staff. After that, the School Department would move students and staff to Brunswick Landing, the former naval air station.
The school would probably get a new name, Makin added: the Brunswick REAL School.
In the audience Wednesday were therapists, teachers, and a former student from the REAL School.
The student, Jamee Fillmore, now attends Southern Maine Community College. Originally from Brunswick, Fillmore’s path through school was interrupted by “trouble” with the law, as she put it. She found the REAL School as an exit from the juvenile justice system.
Now, she says she’s healthier, and thriving. She’s in her second semester at SMCC, earning a degree in psychology.
“Without the REAL School,” she said outside the meeting Wednesday, “I think I might be dead.”
When the School Board unanimously voted to take over the program, she cheered.