ORONO, Maine — It may not be the most hotly debated topic in town, but for many residents it still simmers on the back burner and highlights a philosophical divide.
On one side, a group of residents wants to revisit the possibility of creating a regional high school with neighboring Old Town, an idea from the past that never materialized despite the efforts of many.
On the other side is a faction of townspeople who believe that Orono’s past and future are the same. Consolidation could threaten the high standards and local control that have existed for many years, they believe.
With new blood on the board of directors for RSU 26, the district that comprises Orono, Veazie and Glenburn, the discussion may shift from the back burner to the front.
But will anything change?
Enrollment numbers at both Orono High School and Old Town High School are relatively steady, according to officials, but there is no guarantee they will stay that way. Other districts in Maine have explored partnerships recently, most notably Georges Valley and Rockland District high schools.
The irony is that both sides of the debate in Orono want the same thing — the best education for students in the community. Where they differ is how to achieve that.
Dana Devoe of Orono and Ralph Leonard of Old Town have been working for years to promote a feasibility study for a regional high school that would serve both Orono and Old Town.
Devoe spoke at a Jan. 26 RSU 26 meeting about his idea, but the board of directors did not take any action. Devoe said this week that he expects a board member to request a discussion for a meeting in April.
“The gradual decrease of students coming to Orono makes it harder to provide a full educational spectrum,” said Devoe, a longtime Orono resident. “Those who have opposed [regionalization] don’t have an answer to that concern.”
As recently as last November, former RSU 26 Chairman Geoff Wingard stated that the position of the board was not to pursue a joint high school. Wingard is no longer on the board.
Alison Mitchell, who was selected as chairwoman by her peers during a special board meeting Wednesday night, said it would not be appropriate for her to take a strong stand one way or the other.
“As chair, I’m not philosophically against having the conversation,” she said this week. “I don’t think any one of us wants to limit debate.”
The regionalization discussion is not new, and it is much more complicated than whether two neighboring towns can combine educational efforts, according to those who have been following the issue. The debate also is not unique to Orono, which means others communities could benefit from the lessons learned here.
“There are some who are concerned more about the long range, maybe 10 years out, and what the future of the schools will be,” said Ted Curtis, an Orono lawyer and a former longtime school committee member. “On that premise, is it worthwhile to have a feasibility study to look at a regional high school?”
In recent months, the debate has played out on the Bangor Daily News opinion pages.
Sean Wasson, a former town councilor in both Orono and Old Town, wrote an OpEd column last November advocating for consolidation and calling on the town of Orono to get over its parochial past.
“The goal is to continue improvement of student learning, not to keep past rivalries going,” he wrote. “To be honest, I am shocked that a community like Orono (my hometown), with the University of Maine located in its backyard, is unwilling to do the right thing for the students.”
Wasson’s piece was followed by a response a week later from Wingard, then the RSU board chairman.
“I’d like to address the negative tone of Mr. Wasson’s op-ed,” Wingard wrote. “He resurrects old stereotypes of Orono and Old Town to lay blame for the perceived shortcomings of the school units at the feet of Orono residents. He characterizes Orono as an exclusive college town and bemoans the ‘ego and snobbish attitude’ of Orono’s residents. This is unfortunate.”
The sentiment in both men’s writing reveals an underlying tension that extends well beyond either.
It was less than three years ago that Old Town’s school committee voted unanimously to discuss the possibility of a regional high school. The concept was to build a regional facility on University of Maine property that could serve Orono, Old Town and possibly surrounding communities such as Milford, Greenbush, Bradley and Glenburn.
The next night, Orono’s school committee voted 3-2 against the idea. The committee members against the idea at the time, Stefani Berkey, Jim Bird and Leo Kenney, said they favored keeping Orono’s schools small.
Lisa Buck and Bob Swindlehurst voted in favor of partnering with Old Town.
Buck and Bird, who represent both sides of the argument, were elected to the RSU 26 board by Orono voters last month.
Around the same time Orono and Old Town were considering regionalizing, schools districts across Maine were asked to consolidate. The communities briefly reached out to each other but decided to go in different directions and formed RSU 26, comprising Orono, Veazie and Glenburn, and RSU 34, comprising Old Town, Alton and Bradley.
Even though Orono and Old Town have their own districts now, they could still partner on a regional high school in the future.
Most new school construction projects approved by the Department of Education in recent years have been consolidated efforts — either multiple towns combining on a school or one community combining or consolidating existing schools.
In the meantime, both Orono High School and Old Town High School are set to see renovations. In Old Town’s case, the improvements are necessary to retain accreditation. In both cases, the renovations could be considered a Band-Aid that will last only so long, according to some.
As it is, many of the towns in RSU 26 and RSU 34 that have school choice are sending high school students to schools outside their RSUs. As the schools in Orono and Old Town get older, that trend could continue. A new high school could keep students within the districts, some believe, while still preserving school choice.
Old Town High’s enrollment dropped when the former Georgia-Pacific mill closed but has stabilized at around 550 students, principal Scott Gordon said. Orono High prinicipal Jim Chasse said Orono’s enrollment has averaged about 360 over the last decade but is now at 335.
Adding to the debate in Orono is a new initiative by the high school to attract international students, with Chinese students leading the way. Several schools faced with enrollment declines, notably Millinocket, are looking to China to stem the tide.
Chasse said bringing in foreign students should help further stabilize enrollment and also provide revenue. Last year, Orono entered into a memo of understanding with the University of Maine to house up to 56 international high school students on campus. Orono has 13 international students enrolled this year but hopes to improve on that number, Chasse said.
All of these discussions overlap with an overarching question: What is Orono High School’s future?
Mitchell, who has been the RSU 26 chairwoman for only a few days, said that is a question the board likely will have to answer in the coming years, but it will involve more than just Orono residents. Glenburn and Veazie now have a stake in this as well.
The discussion is certain to bring with it strong emotions, some long held.