CONTRIBUTORS

Counting on luck no plan for better schools

Posted Sept. 07, 2011, at 5:43 p.m.

When it comes to your children, it’s terrible to think that some of the things that make the biggest difference in their lives come down to luck.

But sometimes, that’s just what happens. Especially when government abdicates its responsibility for public education.

When my wife and I moved to Portland in 2002, the decision to close Baxter Elementary School was still fresh in the minds of our neighbors. It was a bitter fight that ended with our neighborhood split among several elementary schools.

We missed the ugliness of the ordeal, but quickly understood the lingering effects that the decision had on the community.

My children, who came along in 2003 and 2005, were sent to Presumpscot Elementary. At our bus stop, we would watch as buses from at least three elementary schools criss-crossed to pick up kids and take them in different directions. The cohesiveness of the neighborhood was shattered.

Every day, my daughter went one direction to school while kids just a street away went the other direction.

This week, Portland celebrated the grand opening of the new Ocean Avenue School, an elementary built on the site of Baxter Elementary.

It’s an amazing facility that will serve more than 400 students. It’s built with cutting-edge technology and with best education practices in mind. One look at the school and you can tell it’s built for learning and growing.

The project came in under budget by about $4 million and ahead of schedule.

Ocean Avenue School replaces Nathan Clifford Elementary School, a 102-year-old building.

It’s a great opportunity for my kids and hundreds of others in Portland.

Here’s the thing: My kids had a wonderful experience at Presumpscot School, which uses an expeditionary learning model for teaching.

The teachers and the administration were approachable, professional and did a great job helping my kids to grow and to learn.

We had the option to leave our kids there.

Presumpscot Elementary is old. Students have to shuttle outside to out buildings for classes. The gym is small and also serves as the cafeteria. The bathrooms look like something from when I was in school 30 years ago.

Buildings alone don’t make great schools. In fact, the most important elements of a quality education are inspiring and caring teachers and administrators and engaged parents. Presumpscot has that.

But given the opportunity to walk to a brand new school with a faculty and staff from Nathan Clifford that is well-regarded, we decided to make the move.

Like I said, we feel lucky. We had choices.

But luck is a poor substitute for planning and for sound public policy.

Presumpscot Elementary needs to be replaced; the kids that go there deserve better.

School construction in Maine is largely a state function. This year, the state ranked the 71 schools that need to be replaced. According to the Department of Education, the oldest of these buildings was built in 1861. Only 14 of them were built in 1970 or later. The schools use more than 207 portable classrooms and in six of the schools, more than 40 percent of students are in the out buildings.

Presumpscot ranks 33rd on the list. The top priorities for replacement are schools in Corinth, Sanford, Newport, Fryeburg, Topsham, Lewiston, Monmouth and Caribou. Many communities have more than one school on the list.

Since 2001, the state has built 33 schools. At that rate, it may take another decade get past the Top 10 projects.

Instead of long lists and longer waits, now is the time for Maine to take an aggressive approach to public infrastructure.

It’s cheap to borrow. In June, bonds sold by the state were paying only 2 percent — or less — in interest.

Building new schools creates jobs.

But as important, we shouldn’t let luck divide our kids further into haves and have-nots.

Thousands of students are trying to learn in dilapidated schools that are unsafe and literally falling down.

Great buildings don’t make great schools. But they sure help.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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