Originally published in Castine Patriot, June 29, 2017
People’s Forum addresses school viability
by Monique Labbe
The People’s Forum of Penobscot has launched a two-phase effort to address the sustainability of Penobscot Community School. Phase One was a report, released this spring, that addressed the factors affecting that sustainability.
The undertaking was started at the request of the Penobscot board of selectmen, according to the report.
One of the issues highlighted in the report was school enrollment, which has gone down significantly over the last two and a half decades. In the early 1990s, enrollment was over 150 students. That number decreased steadily over the years, and by 2000 the school had fewer than 100 students. In 2005, the enrollment number dropped to 65, but over the past decade has remained steady at about 70 students.
There are currently 15 elementary-school age children living in Penobscot but not attending the Penobscot school. Their families have instead decided to send them to the Bay School or Blue Hill Consolidated School, which has been a “good fit” for those involved, according to the report.
On the opposite side of the coin, there are currently five students at Penobscot Community School who are not residents of Penobscot. Two of those students are from Brooksville, having transferred with an agreement by the superintendent, and three students are children of Penobscot Community School teachers.
The report also cites a lack of affordable housing and jobs for parents, and younger families moving away, as issues in regards to low enrollment numbers. Lack of nearby after-school day care was also cited as a concern. According to the report, school staff recall only two students who were transferred elsewhere because of another school having more to offer. In a few cases, students have transferred to Blue Hill Consolidated School because of a parent’s employment in that town.
Quality of education was also addressed, as students have been performing well during state testing. Last year, students in grades 3 through 8 placed in the top 5 percentile in the reading portion of the Maine Educational Assessment, and in the top 18 percentile in math. Compared to results from other area schools, Penobscot was third in both math and reading.
Another concern is the cost associated with keeping the school open and running. The trend, as reported, shows that the total school budget has increased at the same rate as inflation and has not gone up faster than inflation. In 1990 state and federal funding was greater than the level of local funding and amounted to 59 percent of the total school budget. However, since 1990, state and federal funds for education dropped dramatically, and in 2016 amounted to 2 percent of the total school budget. Local funding has had to increase to support the school budget and in fact, rose three times the rate of inflation between 1990 and the present.
Because of an increase in local funding, Penobscot selectmen have expressed concern about the amount of unpaid taxes at the end of the year, according to the report.
In addition to rising local funding, the cost per pupil has increased as well, reported at $18,602 in 2016. That number, though, is generally lower than schools of comparable size in this area, according to Principal Allen Cole.
As school costs rise and student enrollment decreases, the cost per student increases. Many, if not most, of the expenses are associated with the school building and the staff, and are fixed expenses whether classrooms have a maximum or minimum number of students, according to the report.
Now that the report has been finalized, the People’s Forum plans to get feedback from the community and move forward with Phase Two. The goal is to identify and evaluate options to increase enrollment, reduce costs and respond to a decrease or increase in enrollment while maintaining quality of education.The forum will present results to the community to inform planning by those in positions to make decisions.
The Phase One report will be available at penobscotmaine.org.