The Baldacci administration’s school consolidation law did not mandate school closures. Instead, it leveraged a merger of school districts with neighboring districts so they shared administration, transportation, maintenance, facilities and special education services.
But everyone knew that with declining enrollments as far as the eye could see, newly merged districts would soon consider closing some schools. As this happens, there is much lamentation about the loss of community elementary schools. This sentiment is genuine, and correctly identifies a very real loss.
But that loss is a trade-off in the goal of providing a better, more efficient education for Maine children. And that trade has been made repeatedly over the last 50 years, as the state’s educational system evolved from hundreds of independent, town-run schools to regional districts with substantial state oversight.
An interesting master’s thesis could be written by studying two cases that are developing in the midcoast.
In Knox County, the former Rockland area district (SAD 5) and the former Thomaston area district (SAD 50) each had separate high schools, but in the merged district, they will have one campus, conceptually at least, with one building serving eighth and ninth graders, the other grades 10-12. The plan allows the younger students time to transition into the higher grades, and the more concentrated student numbers allow more creativity in curriculum.
In Waldo County, where the former Belfast area district (SAD 34) and the former Searsport area district (SAD 56) merged, the superintendent wants to move Searsport high school students to the Belfast high school, use the Searsport high school as a middle school for the regional school unit and the Belfast middle school as a regional elementary school, and close some small elementary schools in outlying towns.
The two approaches are different, but reflect creative, geographically influenced thinking. They also reflect budget realities. State funding for K-12 education likely will remain flat for several years, so local educational leaders know they must make tough choices. The Belfast-Searsport area superintendent has said he believes educators are more important than buildings, and that has guided his strategy. That’s sensible, responsible and most important, proactive in the face of looming funding shortfalls.
That doesn’t mean families and children won’t feel pain. Longer bus rides, more burdens for parents needing to pick up their children at school and perhaps a less personal atmosphere in the school are among the possible detriments.
But state government and local property taxpayers can no longer afford to operate schools in every town. RSU 20 (Belfast-Searsport area) has about 2,600 students and 13 school buildings. That’s an average of 200 students per building. RSU 13 (Rockland-Thomaston area) has about 2,100 students and 10 buildings. That’s also an average of about 200 students per building.
In the baby-boom years of the late 1950s and 1960s, elementary schools were built in suburban areas that housed 400-500 or more students. Those schools provided first-rate education.
The move toward fewer schools, more consistent statewide standards and economic efficiency continues, as it has for the last 50 years.