Now that the presidential election is over, Maine voters are turning their attention to the school district referendums in their towns. We are asked to digest a lot of information in the reorganization plans.
This is not an easy task. The plans explain how decisions will be made by a large school board, how money and costs will be shared, and what will happen to school property and the like. The committees that wrote the plans are holding informational meet-ings to inform voters about the details before the votes (which must happen before the end of January).
Confusing the situation even more are editorials, media releases from the Department of Education, and neighbors’ discussions at the corner store. The governor and the Department of Education are pushing this hard, reminding towns that they will be penalized financially if they vote no. Many residents, however, believe that handing over their stake in their community’s schools is the first nail in the coffin for their schools and perhaps their communities.
The Maine Small Schools Coalition has produced a useful document to help voters evaluate the plans in their regions. It asks, “Does this Plan look like it will accomplish the goals of the reorganization law?” That’s about as basic as it gets when it comes to accountability.
The coalition flier suggests that residents go to the public information sessions and ask four basic questions (each one based on the goals of the law):
1. Will this plan save us money?
2. Will this plan improve learning for our children?
3. Will this plan give us choice over important decisions involving our schools?
4. Will this plan be fair to all towns and citizens?
Ask for details. Make sure that the plan itself spells out how and where the new Regional School Unit or Alternative Organizational Structure will save money, improve learning, provide a voice in decisions, and be fair. (For a full copy of the four questions with follow-up questions, see www.mdischools.net.)
If the evidence convinces you that the plan will do these things, then support it. If the evidence does not — or if it’s not specific and not actually in the plan — then do not support it.
Consolidating school districts and schools and terminating local school boards will change the face of public education in Maine. It will be costly in human and financial terms for some school systems. It’s absolutely essential that Maine voters have all the information possible when they cast their votes.
Keep in mind that the Legislature and the administration have stacked the deck behind the RSU and AOS plans by penalizing towns that vote no. Many Mainers find this distasteful. Some consider it unconstitutional to meddle in the democratic process this way. All the more reason to make certain that the plans either have the goods or not. When a town votes no it will be for good, legally defensible reasons.
Fern Desjardins is superintendent of schools for SAD 33. Scott Porter is superintendent of schools for School Union 102 and the East Machias Municipal School District.