Barely five miles apart along the Maine coast, Rockland District High School and Georges Valley High School of Thomaston are two examples that declining school enrollment is not confined to rural inland areas of northern and western Maine.
Once a Class A school for interscholastic sports, Rockland is barely a Class B program today with approximately 400 students.
Georges Valley, a longtime Class C school, has dropped to fewer than 280 students.
Together it’s likely they would still compete in Class B, and by September 2011 they’ll get that chance.
Already linked at the administrative level as Regional School Unit 13 — the result of ongoing reorganization efforts around the state — the schools will fully consolidate in September 2011 as the result of a vote earlier this year by the RSU 13 board of directors.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, and everybody is aware that it needs to be done in a timely manner,” said Georges Valley athletic administrator and assistant principal Ed Hastings. “It’s going to be a good challenge to take two programs and make a smooth transition to having just one.”
The Rockland-Georges Valley consolidation is perhaps the first chapter of what may become a more frequent occurrence statewide in the coming years amid the shrinking school-age population and challenging economic conditions.
Academic considerations and the elimination of overlapping services are the primary reasons for this particular move, but the consolidation of Rockland and Georges Valley will affect virtually all aspects of school life.
And while athletics typically comprise a small part of the overall school budget — generally about 3 percent — they often bring considerable publicity to their schools, so there’s plenty of interest in the future of what are now known as the Rockland Tigers and Georges Valley Buccaneers.
That’s why students, administrators and other interested people from throughout the RSU already are planning not only for the educational side of the unified high school, but also a joint athletic program.
“The athletic side is just a small piece of it,” said Rockland athletic administrator Jim Leonard, like Hastings a graduate of the school where he now works. “The academic side of it is going to be a tougher row to hoe.
“There are a lot of hurdles to get over, but there are a lot of good people involved.”
A history of consolidation
The state’s first widespread effort at school consolidation came with the Legislature’s passage of the Sinclair Act in 1957. Ironically, that effort was prompted by the post-World War II baby boom and corresponding increase in school enrollment.
Sixty-two school administrative districts were created during the 1960s, resulting in the closure of many small-town high schools.
But since peaking at approximately 250,000 students in 1970, K-12 enrollment statewide has gradually decreased. Approximately 190,000 students were enrolled in public schools during the 2009-10 school year with another 10,000 in private schools, according to statistics from the state Department of Education website.
Some areas of the state were affected by enrollment decreases sooner than others in the wake of Maine’s shrinking agriculture and manufacturing bases — including numerous communities that once were home to thriving textile plants or paper mills.
Such a scenario led to the most recent school merger in 1989, when high schools in the neighboring mill towns of Rumford and Mexico consolidated to form Mountain Valley High School.
“Enrollment at Mexico had decreased to the point that we weren’t able to offer a lot of classes that we had before, like dance and foreign languages,” said John Bernard, a coach at Mexico High School at the time and now athletic director at Mountain Valley High School. “The curriculum really suffered, and some of the sports teams suffered, too.”
The merger wasn’t easily accomplished, as generations of rivalry between the two communities — the Rumford Panthers and Mexico Pintos — came to the forefront when consolidation was proposed.
The first attempt at merging the two systems fell through, but a subsequent attempt was approved despite some hard feelings that lingered on the athletic front.
“I remember the first year of Mountain Valley,” Bernard said. “People were keeping count of how many Rumford kids were playing and how many kids from Mexico were playing, or looking for kids who may have started the year before for one of the schools who didn’t start for the unified team.”
Coaches at the school had discussions with student athletes from both Rumford and Mexico, acknowledging that not all of them would be starters on the unified team but encouraging them to remain part of the program either way.
And those students played a significant role in smoothing the transition.
“The kids had already been playing together in youth baseball or youth basketball or youth football,” Bernard said. “They had already played on a lot of the same teams, so it wasn’t as much of a change for the kids as it was for some of the older folks.”
Today Mountain Valley High School has an enrollment of 480 students, and its teams are known as the Falcons with school colors of silver and blue.
“It’s been a great thing for athletics here,” said Bernard, whose unified program has been a power in such sports as football and basketball. “There were more opportunities for all the kids, and it gave them a more rounded educational experience.”
One difference between the Rockland-Georges Valley consolidation effort and others that have been rumored around the state is that these two schools don’t often face each other in interscholastic competition, save for preseason contests.
Despite their proximity, the schools are separated by a line of demarcation of sorts used by the Maine Principals’ Association for dividing the state’s high school athletic programs into East and West regions.
Rockland traditionally has been an Eastern Maine program competing in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, while Georges Valley has competed against primarily Western Maine competition as a member of the Mountain Valley Conference.
They’ve also competed in different classes by enrollment, so the sense of rivalry may not be as intense as it is among other sets of neighboring communities such as Jay and Livermore Falls, Waterville and Winslow, or Millinocket and East Millinocket.
“We’ve been in different classifications, so in terms of a rivalry, I don’t think it’s been quite the same as some of the other schools that are talked about,” said Leonard. “It may be an issue for some of the kids, but a lot of them already have been playing together on teams in the midcoast region during the summer, so the coming together for the kids has generally been an easier process.”
It’s likely the unified school would join the KVAC, given that league already has a Class B grouping of schools that provide similar athletic offerings. A KVAC affiliation also would allow for rivalries with the likes of nearby Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, Camden Hills of Rockport, and Belfast.
The MVC currently has only two Class B programs in Lisbon and Mountain Valley High School of Rumford — itself the result of a consolidation effort in 1989 — and travel likely would be greater with that league now stretching from the coast to Telstar of Bethel and Mount Abram of Salem in the western mountains.
But conference affiliation is just one of many issues to be resolved.
From two to one
The unifying Rockland and Georges Valley high schools will face several of the same challenges in developing a joint athletic program that Rumford and Mexico did more than two decades ago, and committees have been established within RSU 13 to address many of those topics.
“The initial change will be figuring out what the name of the new high school is going to be, the mascot and the school colors,” said Leonard, “because a lot of other decisions are driven by those decisions, such as getting new uniforms for the teams.”
Other topics to be addressed include developing a singular eligibility policy for student athletes, determining how the athletic facilities at both high schools will be used, and getting student athletes from one school to the other for practices and games.
“Transportation is going to be a key,” said Hastings, “as well as organizing gymnasium time among all the teams that will be using the two gyms. We’ll have kids headed each way for practice, and we’ve got to be able to get kids to practice on time. There are things like that to iron out.”
The two athletic administrators will benefit from an additional resource this fall, as Rockland and Georges Valley will field a cooperative high school field hockey team.
“Georges Valley field hockey was in a downward trend,” said Hastings, “and we were in a situation this year where we were only going to have six or eight kids, so we wouldn’t have been able to field a team.”
The Rockland-Georges Valley team, to be hosted by Rockland, should give Leonard and Hastings a chance to study transporta-tion trends and gain other information that could help in preparing for a fully unified program the next year.
“Transportation issues between schools are one thing we can learn a lot about,” said Leonard. “A group of girls will be coming from Georges Valley every day to practice or play a game, and we have to get them back and forth as expeditiously as possible.”
The joint nature of that team highlights one of the advantages of the unified athletic program. While two varsity teams will become one, a deeper pool of student athletes not only will ensure more stability at the varsity level, but also provide for a steady roster of subvarsity programs — which hasn’t always been the case.
“Right now I look at it from season to season, and if I don’t have the numbers in a sport, we don’t have a JV team,” Hastings said. “If we put the [enrollment] number up to 600 or more, we’ll have JV teams. That will help us in developing players, and that’s going to improve the program.”
And with additional subvarsity teams, Leonard is hopeful that will lead to more players sticking with sports at the high school level.
“One of the advantages I see is that we should have a much stronger, more stable feeder program,” said Leonard, whose school did not field a JV softball team this spring.
“The number of kids coming out for sports has diminished to the point where we don’t have freshman teams. That forces freshmen to play up, sometimes before they’re ready. In some cases they get discouraged.”
Then there are the sports offered at one school but not the other that will be available for all students of the unified school be-ginning with the 2011-2012 academic year.
“One argument against this is that there’s going to be fewer opportunities for the kids, but I think it’s just the opposite,” said Leonard. “The kids at Georges Valley, for example, are going to have the opportunity to participate in indoor track, outdoor track, cross country, cheering and football at the high school level, which they don’t have now.
“It’s going to benefit the kids by giving them a more diverse selection of sports.”
Those student athletes also may play under new leadership, for while there likely will be an increase in the number of subvar-sity coaches, there will be only one varsity head coach for each sport instead of one at each school.
During the Mountain Valley consolidation, all the coaching positions were open to anyone who wanted to apply, according to Bernard. Hastings anticipates a similar scenario playing out at the unified Rockland- Georges Valley school.
“The way I see it, take the varsity basketball position, for example, open it up to the coaches who are there and anyone else who puts his name in, and the most qualified candidate should get the chance,” he said.
That also may apply to the athletic administrator’s post.
“Obviously it’s been on my mind a lot, but I try to put things in perspective,” said Hastings. “I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to be here next year and to have the chance to help make a smooth transition to the unified school.
“We’ll just have to see how it all works out.”