The clock has passed midnight and the RSU coach is looking more and more like a pumpkin in some parts of Maine. Jan. 1 marked the 2½-year mark since school district “reorganization,” the centerpiece of the last administration’s education policy, took effect. It also triggers for towns where the new RSU is not meeting expectations the opportunity to begin the RSU withdrawal process.
What difference has the law made? When the dust settled in 2009 after two years of statewide confusion, only a dozen substantially reorganized RSUs had been formed — RSUs, that is, that combined three or more former districts into a single new one. Twenty-seven of the “new RSUs” touted by the Department of Education were old SADs simply renamed with no reorganization at all; a few more were minor consolidations — for example, Kennebunk annexing Arundel — or school unions converted to RSUs.
So, how is it going in those RSUs? In those that simply renamed themselves, it’s understandably going about the same as it was before the law. In some of the less extensive reorganizations — for example, in RSU 10 in the Rumford area where two SADs combined or RSU 16 in the Poland area where a school union became an RSU — it has gone relatively smoothly.
In some, however, concerns about shared funding, loss of resident and town choice and weakened academic programs have ignited firestorms. Conflicts in the small RSU in Orono, Veazie and Glenburn have led to withdrawal petitions in Veazie and Glenburn. Residents remain disgruntled in Orland, where RSU 25’s board of directors voted to close their school. Arundel residents have launched a withdrawal petition to escape the board domination of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.
In most of the largest and most reorganized RSUs, residents and educators are deeply concerned about growing bureaucracy and declining educational programs.
Residents in RSU 12 in the Sheepscot River Valley, one of the state’s largest new RSUs combining eight towns, were so upset that they refused to support a budget for the new district until 2011. Now, residents in Wiscasset are petitioning to get out. In RSU 2, the residents of Monmouth have steadily raised their voices in opposition to the RSU’s “solutions” to their problems.
In RSU 24 in Eastern Hancock County, many smaller community schools live under the threat of closure and have seen talented teachers depart for jobs in the higher paying communities of the RSU. One RSU 24 board member told me that the task of reorganizing the superintendent’s office and board was so cumbersome that educational services and improvements in the schools have been neglected. RSU 24 has had three superintendents in two-plus years of life.
Clearly, the time has come for residents who are concerned about the quality and cost of education in their schools to re-reorganize. For many, this will mean choosing a district format that supports resident participation and town ownership of and responsibility for their schools. This option is the Alternative Organizational Structure, or AOS. It is, by far, the healthier choice. In fact, 12 of the 15 newly organized districts in the past two years are AOSs, not RSUs.
Legislators, Gov. Paul LePage and Commissioner Stephen Bowen need to support towns that
want to take back their schools. The “RSU Law” dictates that, in order to withdraw from an RSU, two-thirds of the voter turnout must say yes to the withdrawal plan. Such a threshold is irrationally high. It only required a simple majority to form an RSU and terminate the previous district. Why must it now take two-thirds to leave?
Back then, voters were deciding on the basis of political promises and sketchy designs. Now, we have 2½ years of experience living under RSU policies and practices. We now know whether this district format serves our kids, families and taxpayers. For Maine towns where it does not, the state now has an obligation to assist in the formation of new districts that truly will.
Gordon Donaldson is professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine and resides in Lamoine.