Uncertainty over the school district consolidation vote taking place in some towns on Jan. 27 is giving voters in Maine a difficult decision. Some see a vote for consolidation as a vote for a process with which many communities have disagreed, and others see it as a vote for supporting a policy from Augusta that does not respect local control. A yes vote may raise local education costs, some fear, and certainly forebodes a time of uncertain transition.
Even in the light of these concerns, a vote in Orono for consolidating with Veazie and Glenburn’s school districts into the planned Riverside Regional School Unit is preferable to a vote against. Powerful emotions have swept this small town as a result of a poorly designed process. Yet a vote against consolidation is not a vote for the status quo, nor is it a vote against the Legislature or the governor (a statewide repeal referendum and state and gubernatorial votes are the most effective place for that). However, a vote for consolidation is the most useful defense against future uncertainty for our town.
Uncertainty is facing us whether or not consolidation happens. The economy is shrinking, as are long-term student population numbers in many towns. But if the new RSU comes into effect, Orono (and Veazie and Glenburn, too) will at least know clearly where their future lies.
Three towns working together through an elected RSU board can work toward cost savings over the long run. We can share costs through our locally designed formula which, when tested on this and previous years’ budgets, fairly and equitably allows each town to pay its own way. We don’t know what budgetary pressures will be like in the future, though there’s little reason to be optimistic about them. Orono’s regionalization committee’s best estimate is that the new RSU will save the three towns approximately $80,000, after startup costs, in its first year; not much, in a multimillion-dollar budget, but it’s in the right direction.
What happens if the vote is against consolidation? The state will not drop this issue. To begin with, we know our town will be fined $119,000 for just the first year of noncompliance. There’s no reason why these fines will disappear in future years. Some are tempted to say that we should take the fine to show we don’t like being pushed around. In the cold light of morning, perhaps facing further withdrawal of state support, it’s not clear how long that stance can be maintained.
To judge by the continuing inability or unwillingness of the state to meet the requirements of the last statewide education referendum (on raising the state’s share of educational costs to 55 percent), it may not fully implement the consolidation law repeal referendum either, even if it passes in November. Meanwhile, a vote against this partnership on Jan. 27 might lead ultimately to Orono being forced to enter larger partnerships in which our town’s voice is further diluted. A vote for consolidation at least will be conforming to Maine law, a position of strength in negotiating with Augusta, if and when it returns to supporting education more fully.
Most importantly, the towns with whom Orono would join have similar educational visions, and fit well together, and the plan being voted on has an extensive section, which not all plans do, on maintaining parent and community input. Our plan, which you could think of as the new RSU’s “constitution,” contains safeguards against moving grade levels between schools, and ending bus routes, and the law itself contains safeguards against school closing. If the state won’t let consolidation die, then there are good educational and financial reasons for thinking we are better off with this plan than in a kind of limbo without one.
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of consolidation; like many others, I wish the process had been different. Still, consolidation seems better than the opposite, given the environment we are entering. We must play the hand we have been dealt to our best advantage.
Jim Bulteel is a community representative on Orono’s Regionalization Planning Committee.