Residents discuss options for RSU 13

Posted Jan. 13, 2010, at 11:48 p.m.

THOMASTON, Maine — About 100 residents of RSU 13 communities turned out Wednesday night to discuss several options for restructuring two local high schools.

The current model of two separate schools isn’t working for Rockland District High School or for Georges Valley High School, according to the RSU 13 High School Study Group, a committee charged with finding options for the futures of the schools.

The group’s recommendation is an option where students in eighth and ninth grade would attend school in Thomaston and 10th through 12th graders would attend school in Rockland. That option held perfect scores in the report in all the categories, including potential for academic achievement, fiscal reality, efficient use of resources and postsecondary readiness.

The options the RSU 13 High School Study Group laid out in the report were to keep two high schools, merge both schools into one school or create two schools that are split by grade levels.

The current model — keeping two separate high schools — scored lowest in the report’s fiscally realistic category.

“Finances are a big part of this, there is no doubt about it,” said Judith Lucarelli, superintendent of RSU 13, who presented the group’s findings at Wednesday’s meeting in the gym at Georges Valley High School.

The current model scored low or neutral in every category except “compliance with state mandates.”

“If everything else stays the same, we would be short next year $1,650,000,” Lucarelli said. That number does not include any state budget cuts. “I’m anticipating that the overall fiscal impact of next year is about $2.5 million.” She said she will not have a solid number until the Legislature decides on final budgets.

The current model also is not helping the schools’ combined 700 students academically, the report implies. About half of the ninth graders in both the schools are getting D’s and F’s. According to the report, 49 percent of Rockland’s freshmen got at least one D last marking period and 40 percent of Rockland’s freshmen got at least one F. The Thomaston high school didn’t do well either: 48 percent of its freshmen got at least one D, while 27 percent of the freshmen got at least one F.

Lucarelli thinks if the schools separate, divided by grade levels, each can specialize to better prepare each level of students.

The timeline for any changes to the schools is hazy. According to Lucarelli, both schools will have to cut programming if there is no merger and if the RSU has to keep making budget cuts.

Faculty layoffs also were discussed. According to David Johanson, they are inevitable.

“The fiscal reality of it is that we are going to have to cut staff,” said Johanson, a math teacher at Rockland District High School, who is part of the study group. “The only way we can mitigate the impact on the students is to combine classes.” By doubling the number of students in a course, the cost is cut in half, he said.

RSU 13 employs a total of 450 people, not including substitute teachers. Both of the schools’ bargaining committees’ contracts are up for renegotiation this year.

“We’re going to hurt this year. We’re going to hurt next year, but if we can do this by 2012, our students will be well served,” Johanson told the audience at one point during the meeting that lasted more than two hours.

Lucarelli could not say how many more faculty layoffs there might be, but 3½ administrative positions have been cut this year, she said. “We’re not only looking at teachers,” she said.

Community members showed concern about the possibility of tax increases, teachers losing jobs and schools remaining competitive for college entry.

“This is not going to work educationally. You have to show us something other than cutting our teachers and raising our taxes — you are scaring us,” said Angela Vachon, a mother of a senior at Georges Valley and a seventh-grader at Saint George Elementary. “I’m not OK with what the board recommended. It’s too much too soon.”

The group has not yet worked out details, including the different graduation requirements of each school, extracurricular activities and how many valedictorians would graduate.

The meeting was one of several forums designed to gain input about the restructuring options after the RSU 13 board voted last week to stop a merger in 2010. The next forum is Jan. 20 at Thomaston Grammar School.

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