Bridging the Opportunity Divide

One Small Town in Maine Is Trying Something Radical to Keep Its Population From Decreasing

January 27, 2015
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One Small Town in Maine Is Trying Something Radical to Keep Its Population From Decreasing
St. Francis is looking to deal with declining enrollments and rising education costs by combining elementary classes and elderly assisted living under one roof. Phil Walter/Getty Images
Turning classrooms into apartments could be the answer.

The problem facing some Maine towns: declining enrollments and budget crunches in public schools.

As a result, some local schools have been forced to close, and the community must send their kids elsewhere for their education. The town of St. Francis, for example, was about to lose its local elementary school because only 32 kids were enrolled. Closing the facility would save the district $170,000, but result in hour-long bus trips to Fort Kent, 16 miles away.

But the residents have come up with an innovative idea that could save their elementary school: give the building to the town. Part of the structure would continue to serve as classroom space for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students, and the other part would be converted into much-needed housing for town seniors, whose rent would contribute to running the school.

Although there is much to be worked out before the plan can go ahead, both sides involved agree that it’s a good idea. The school district superintendent Tim Doak tells the Bangor Daily News, “The more we talked about it, the more it looked like a win-win for everyone. It would help keep elderly residents in the community, it keeps the kids at school and it could provide jobs.”

Local representative John Martin has introduced legislation to allow this transfer to happen. At a recent school board meeting, he said, “There is currently nothing in the law that gives [St. Francis] the ability to do what they want to do: generate income from elderly housing [and] put them in the position to apply for grants.”

Doak is hopeful that this solution could help other struggling small-town schools in Maine. “I do think this idea for St. Francis can work,” he says. “We just need to move carefully, [and] this could be a model for the rest of the state.”

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