The new Athens Community School Principal Cynthia Streznewski speaks with head teacher Edward Ellis as children play during recess recently.
By Doug Harlow
ATHENS — There are new teachers, a new principal, a new superintendent and a new name — Athens Community School.
Since withdrawing from Madison-based School Administrative District 59 this summer, the town now owns the school, the land, the buses and all the teacher contracts.
Athens is now part of Dexter-based Alternative Organizational Structure 94, with the towns of Ripley, Garland, Exeter and Harmony.
The new principal, Cynthia Streznewski, of Belgrade, also shares her time as principal of the Harmony school.
“It’s going to be a rough year in transition, but everyone is so committed to making it work that I think it will work and Athens will be better for it,” Streznewski said. “I like entering it at the beginning of this journey with them. It’s a good point to enter because we are making it our own school, our own vision.
“We’re all on the same page and that’s exciting and we’re building it with the community and doing what’s best for the kids. Getting away from the SAD wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t as committed as they were.”
Streznewski started when school opened at the end of August. There are 120 students at the Athens school and 88 at the Harmony school, both of which are pre-kindergarten through grade eight.
Streznewski studied music at the Boston Conservatory of Music and started her career as a music teacher. She later earned a master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of Maine.
This year is her first year as a certified school principal. She is in Athens Tuesday afternoon and Thursday mornings every week.
Edward Ellis, a 29-year veteran of the school, is considered the lead teacher, or assistant principal.
“I think it can continue with a combined principal and I think it will work because Harmony and Athens are so close together — only seven miles apart,” Streznewski said.
She said some school policies will have to be rewritten because everything from bus rules to handbooks have to be changed from being a member of the SAD to being an independent school.
“All of that was officially owned and operated by the SAD, now as Athens Community School, it’s like we’re a new entity,” she said. “If people want changes, this is the year they can make their changes and make it work to fit where their beliefs really are and I think that’s the power in it for the community, the teachers and the school board. It’s a huge task to overcome.”
Athens even has its own junior high football team on a new full-size football field for the first time. Equipment for work on the field was all donated by Linkletter & Sons, with much of the organization and physical work done by head coach Cory Buzzell and his wife Jean.
The idea of withdrawing from the Madison-based district began in 2010 when the SAD 59 school board switched to a weighted voting system. In that system, board members carried a percentage of the vote based on the population of the town they represented. Under that system, Madison carried 75 percent of the vote and easily could override the wishes of the other, smaller towns.
The SAD 59 board voted informally in 2012 to move seventh- and eighth-graders from the Athens school to Madison Junior High School as a way to save money. The Athens Withdrawal Committee was then formed with the goal of preserving the pre-kindergarten through grade 8 school and securing town control of the school budget and how and what the children were taught.
The prospect of moving Athens junior high school students to Madison and the possibility of losing the school all together some day are gone, said Nancy Martin Athens parent and school administrative assistant.
Being an independent school with its own school board and annual budget is empowering, she said.
“The overall morale of the teachers and staff around here is very good,” said Martin, who also now handles the food and nutrition program. “They like the idea that they are an independent school. It was getting uncomfortable around here last year; the teachers weren’t feeling respected by the school board in Madison — one of the big things was the possibility of losing the seventh- and eighth-graders and I know everybody was concerned about that because that would have meant the teachers that would probably lose their positions and we’d be losing kids.
“The prospect of the eventual closing of the school also was kind of hanging over our heads. That’s what prompted the move to withdraw — nobody wanted to see the school close.
The school has 11 full-time teachers, four education technicians, plus an art teacher, a physical education teacher, a music teacher as well as a part-time speech and language teacher.
“We have our own buses now — we got them in the divorce settlement,” Martin said of the split with SAD 59. “That’s what we all kind of refer to it as.
“We have a third grade teacher, where we didn’t have one last year. And the special ed teacher is new, full time.”
Athens residents voted to withdraw from SAD 59 by a vote of 194-10 in May. Brighton Plantation soon followed suit, as had the town of Starks in January 2012, leaving Madison the only member of SAD 59.
Alan Linkletter, chairman of the three-person Athens School Board, said in the withdrawal agreement, Athens children can now attend the high school of their choice.
This year roughly half of Athens high school students — about 30 — attend Madison Area Memorial High School. He said 15 go to Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, with seven or eight are going to Skowhegan and three to Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft.
Linkletter said after the withdrawal agreement was signed with Madison, the Athens board found there was not enough money in the budget for a full-time principal, so the idea of having a shared position was adopted. He said the board also called a special town meeting in June to raise an extra $60,000 to the $2.14 million annual budget to pay the tuition of Athens students attending Madison High School. The budget includes state and local taxes.
“We have to pay a higher rate for secondary tuition to Madison this first year, that was the agreement when we got out,” Linkletter said. “So many kids decided to go to Madison, we didn’t plan for that many kids to still go there. That brought the budget up to $2.2 million.”
The local revenue share is $852,000 this year, not counting the $60,000 raised at the annual town meeting. The state will pay about $1.3 million.
Athens parent and former SAD 59 school board member Karen Corson said the withdrawal has been a positive experience for Athens residents.
“Dexter sent their maintenance man over and he fixed five holes in our roof and I know we have hired people and things are going very well,” Corson said. “Even though my taxes went up I know where the money is going at the school and I am not feeling bad.
“And the positive is, we have a teacher for each classroom, art, music, physical ed. and sports teams, three buses and a van and a school board that has 100 percent Athens on their minds. I am positive that is a positive thing”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367
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