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Pownal residents mobilize to keep Middle School open

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Pownal residents mobilize to keep Middle School open

POWNAL — A Regional School Unit 5 budget proposal to close Pownal Middle School has a handful of parents and community members rallying to keep the classes in Pownal.

Jonathan Morris, a Pownal resident and parent who teaches in Auburn said a few parents, unhappy about middle school programming, class size, educational and co-curricular options, approached Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh to discuss their concerns.

"Welsh's response was to close the school," he said. "Now, if the majority of the residents agree that this is the best option, then great. But, I have a strong hunch that many people were taken by surprise by this solution."

The proposal to eliminate the Middle School program was unveiled at a RSU 5 Board of Directors budget meeting on March 9.

As presented by Welsh, the 36 students would be offered a choice to attend Middle Schools in Freeport or Durham. Transportation would be provided at a cost of $5,000, but the closure would save the district $185,000. The three Pownal Middle School teachers eliminated by the proposal would be able to apply for other positions within the district, and the school would be used for a special needs program.

In order to gauge what residents, teachers and students thought about the proposal, the RSU 5 board created a survey, but Morris said the questions were not specific enough. Questions from the school survey were to be answered on a five-point scale from extremely comfortable to not comfortable at all.

In order to gather more data, Morris said he and a group of residents created a second survey with 12 specific yes or no questions. In addition, they plan to go door-to-door to find out what residents think.

"We put together and handed out a survey with very specific questions: Do you believe in the proposal to close the middle school program? Do you want the same resources and curricula as Freeport and Durham," he said. "These questions get to the point and will give us a sense of what the community wants to do."

After collecting the surveys, Morris found 18 of the 54 respondents support closing Pownal Middle School, 35 do not agree with the proposal and one person was unsure.  Another question revealed 39 people in favor of keeping the kindergarten-grade 8 program in Pownal, and 14 opposed. Of the 54, 22 residents said moving Pownal Middle School students to other RSU 5 schools would benefit the students, while 33 said it would not be beneficial.

Morris said a group of parents will offer the board a presentation April 14 on how the Middle School program can remain as it is, while retaining the resources offered in Durham and Freeport.

"I love that school," Morris said. "As a teacher, it is a great place. As a parent, I want my son to thrive there. As a community member, it is a place for people to interact."

At the March 24 RSU 5 meeting, no one spoke in favor of closing the school, but Pownal Principal Peter Buckley made a statement in support of the Middle School.

"The school is the center of a vibrant community," Buckley said. "A place that produces productive citizens who give back time and time again."

He said all the schools in the district offer a wonderful educational experience, and "the Pownal experience is one that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace."

Pownal resident Tom Hall said when the town voted in favor of consolidating with Durham and Freeport, residents knew their tax rate would go up. In exchange, he said, the RSU promised educational improvement.

"Will Pownal always be the center of the cost savings efforts on the part of this board," he asked. "This change is solely to save money, because if it was to improve our children's education, we would have the choice to stay or to go."

The board will meet Wednesday, April 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the Freeport High School cafeteria to continue budget deliberations. It is expected to make a decision about Pownal Middle School by April 28.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net