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School district prepares for federal prison families

The school district may have challenges ahead if the federal prison brings a large influx of young students to Berlin. Superintendent Cascadden is preparing to make plans to address that possibility, but she still gets out on the bus to make sure the district runs smoothly today. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
September 23, 2009
BERLIN — More than a year before the federal prison opens, the Berlin School District is beginning to talk about how they are going to deal with the changes.

"We're just starting to have the conversation," said Superintendent Corinne Cascadden.

The prison will be hiring or relocating for about 320 positions, and most of the staff will be below the age of 37 as per the Bureau of Prison regulations. They will bring families to the area, and kids to the schools. Berlin's enrollment has been on the decline for years; this might be the first upswing in a decade.

But it still isn't clear, Superintendent Cascadden said, what impact the prison will have on the schools. There may be a significant number of families moving to the area with young children, but there may not. The bulk of the prison staff may choose to live in the surrounding communities, or they may not have children. It is a tough situation to plan for, she said, and the conversation is just beginning.

The conversation will really take place over the next six weeks, she said, and the district will have to generate some ideas.

"To at least have a backup plan," she said.

That backup plan is more complicated than just figuring out what to do with additional students. The specific grades the students are in are what will affect the district most.

"There is not a classroom to spare at Brown right now," the superintendent said.

If the families come to the area with lots of young kids that would be tough to handle, she said. Elementary school is where the district's resources are stretched the thinnest. The same wouldn't be true if it were mostly high school students. Berlin High was built to handle more student than currently attend, and an increase there wouldn't be a big deal.

There is always the chance the new students will balance the families that are leaving the area. Enrollment has dropped by 201 students since 2004.

The school board decided to close the Bartlett School at the end of last year because of the shrinking student body, and Superintendent Cascadden said she doesn't think that was a mistake. The district has plenty of space in the buildings it currently operates, she said, it's just a matter of organization. She said she's thinking about making the high school grades seven through 12, which would free up space at some of the other buildings.

The area could also take a regional approach, she said joining with the Gorham and Milan SAUs to form a larger district. There are solutions out there, she said, and school officials will soon be examining them.

But they might never be implemented.

"If it doesn't affect our classes and they just replace kids that move out, that will work too," Superintendent Cascadden said. "It's tough to predict. You do the best guessing with the figures you have."

The figure the district does have to work with is its budget, which will be largely solidified by early next year. That means any major shifts in fall 2010 will have to be handled on the pre-prison budget. It may be a scramble through temporary solutions should a large number of students enroll after the school year has started.

To prepare for that possibility, school district officials will have homework of their own to do over the coming weeks.

"It's really everybody's head together making a best guess," said Superintendent Cascadden.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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