Small school caught in the middle of consolidation

Posted Dec. 06, 2009, at 7:47 p.m.

Many big changes are taking place in how our schools are organized and managed in Maine. Whether we like it or voted for it or believe in it, the consolidation law is a big deal and is a reality. The staff of the Beech Hill School in Otis, would like to make clear that the changes taking place are having a very serious and unfortunate impact on the small and wonderful place where we devote our time and effort to the children of Otis and Mariaville.

We have maintained a neutral and professional position throughout the process of voting and debating, having been advised to stay out of the politics and focus on the children. We now feel it is time for us to share how vulnerable we feel as teachers and staff and how sad we are that the school we love seems to be at risk.

Our little school serves, and serves well, about 100 boys and girls. We are the only remaining union school in Maine, a single school, established by two adjoining municipalities and governed by two school committees. Votes over the last year have changed the situation.

Consolidation presented the opportunity for towns to decide if they wanted to join a larger regional unit or remain apart. In that voting, Mariaville opted to join RSU 24 and Otis chose not to. The result is that our tiny school has become the center of a tug-of-war to determine its future, a future that once seemed bright to us.

Money has never been abundant at Beech Hill School, but we have managed to create a very successful learning environment, which includes the full spectrum of special subjects including music, art, guidance and physical education. We also have a wonderful selection of co-curricular activities such as band, chorus, robotics and interscholastic sports. The use of technology is integrated throughout our students’ day.

In many ways, our school is a bit of a throwback where discipline problems are rare, and where respect and courtesy are the norm. Our scores on the MEAs are consistently above average. Our classes are small and our kids are happy.

There is no question that what we have been doing is successful, indeed very successful. But we are growing increasingly afraid that what we have worked so hard to build is dangerously close to becoming a casualty of this consolidation process that began with a promise of improving schools in Maine, not undermining them.

Early on in the consolidation process, no one could answer the question of what would happen if our two small communities voted in different ways on whether to join an RSU. That difference is exactly what happened. What is the likely resolution to this issue? It is hard to say. Whatever scenario plays out is likely to affect our student population and we can ill afford to lose any students in our already small school.

The staff at the Beech Hill School, do not want to chastise anyone for having made the choices they believed in. We fully believe that Gov. John Baldacci, Commissioner Susan Gendron, Superintendent Bill Webster, the Otis School Committee and the RSU 24 board are all doing what they believe is best.

There may be things about consolidation that are distasteful to small communities like ours. But our school was not broken — it was working well and it cannot and will not continue to do so if the current direction isn’t diverted in some meaningful way.

We ask that all involved take whatever immediate action they can and try their best to find a way to keep the Beech Hill School healthful and vibrant as things move forward. It is not just about budgets and numbers. It is about unique and valuable learning opportunities for children. Please call your local school committee member, selectman, or state representative and ask them what they know about our situation and what they can do to help.

Francis Bradbury and Kelly Skehan are teachers at the Beech Hill School in Otis. This column was signed by the school’s entire staff.

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