Ellsworth-area residents push for RSU withdrawal

Posted May 03, 2012, at 1:21 p.m.
Last modified May 03, 2012, at 5:24 p.m.

LAMOINE, Maine — If some residents in central Hancock County get their wish, three municipalities could break away from their regional school unit and perhaps form their own district.

Dissatisfied with their membership in RSU 24, a dozen people from Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine met Monday night at the town office to discuss what they might do to change the situation. If voters in the three towns decide on June 12 to pursue withdrawal, the three municipalities could consider forming a smaller alternative organizational structure, or AOS, similar to what exists on Mount Desert Island, the group agreed.

Among the 12 people who met Monday evening to discuss the matter were state Rep. Rich Malaby of Hancock, former Ellsworth City Councilor Mark Rosborough, former Hancock County Commissioner Ken Shea, RSU 24 board member Brett Jones of Lamoine, and Gordon Donaldson, professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine.

All expressed concern about what they claim has happened with their school system since the creation of RSU 24 nearly three years ago. How their schools are operated has become more detached from and less accessible to residents, they said, and has undermined the close links that used to exist between the schools and the communities they serve.

Suzanne Lukas, superintendent of RSU 24, disputes the idea that the RSU system is somehow less user-friendly than the smaller organizations it replaced. All RSU 24 board meetings are open to the public, she said, and the towns in the RSU have saved millions of dollars in school costs since it began operations on July 1, 2009.

“I think that the district is doing very well,” Lukas said Tuesday.

The RSU was one of about two dozen multitown RSUs created in Maine, all in rural areas, after the Legislature and former Gov. John Baldacci reached a compromise on the state’s 2008-2009 annual operating budget.

Baldacci had sought to save more than $36 million from the state budget by reducing the number of school administration organizations in Maine from 290 to fewer than 80. As a result of the budget’s eventual approval, the number of primary and secondary school administrative organizations in Maine, including RSUs, was reduced to 164.

Donaldson, who lives in Lamoine, said Tuesday during a phone interview that if voters in Ellsworth, Hancock or Lamoine vote to pursue withdrawal from RSU 24, voters in that town then would have to hold another vote later in the year to decide whether they actually want to withdraw. Two-thirds of the voters who show up for the second vote would have to approve of withdrawing before that town could leave the RSU, he said.

Between June 12 and the subsequent vote, Donaldson said, interested towns could come up with a specific alternate school governance format, such as the smaller AOS system on Mount Desert Island, that could be implemented after withdrawal from the RSU.

According to Donaldson, when the 12 member towns of RSU 24 held votes in late 2008 on whether to consolidate, only 12 percent of the registered voters in all 12 towns showed up and only 7 percent of them voted in favor of forming RSU 24.

Since then, he added, many people have developed more informed opinions about what effect being in the RSU has had on their town. Some have questioned the cost efficiency of being in the RSU, he said, though there likely have been some efficiencies achieved with transportation, custodial services and bulk purchases of things such as insurance and school supplies.

But for Donaldson and others examining withdrawal from the RSU, a bigger issue is community involvement, accountability and initiative.

He said it had been difficult to get figures from the RSU to find out how much money it spends on individual schools such as Hancock Grammar School or Lamoine Consolidated School. He also said the RSU structure has made it more difficult for teachers to take initiatives with educational practices in their classrooms and it has discouraged residents from getting involved and interested in how their schools operate.

A good example of this last point, according to people at the Monday night meeting in Lamoine, is the number of voters in the RSU member towns who vote on the organization’s budget each year. When the RSU’s $35 million annual operating budget for 2011-2012 was passed a year ago, it was approved by approximately 100 people. That is less than 1 percent of the more than 19,000 people who live in RSU 24’s 12 member towns.

“This has not taken the direction we would like to see our schools going,” Shea, a onetime member of the Ellsworth School Committee, told the group.

Before the creation of RSU 24, Ellsworth comprised its own district and had its own superintendent. The city is the largest municipality in Hancock County and the RSU, with more than 7,000 residents.

Gary Hunt, first selectman in Hancock, remembers the 2011 RSU budget vote well. At the time of the vote, he raised repeated objections to the budget, saying that it would have a significant impact on Hancock residents who were having trouble paying their mortgages and medical bills.

Hunt said last week that, because of the town’s valuation, it lost about half a million dollars in state school subsidies last year, which would have happened whether Hancock had joined RSU 24 or not. He said it has been difficult to ferret out how consolidation has affected expenses at Hancock Grammar School and that it has affected programming. The Hancock school used to have a full-time music teacher, he said, but now it has to share that position and others with other towns in the RSU.

“It’s hard to say, if we pulled out of the RSU, what the cost would be,” Hunt said. “I think a lot of people would make their decision based on cost. I look at it as a real mess.”

Lukas said that, not including debt service on construction projects that are fully reimbursed by the state, RSU 24 is spending about $2.5 million less this academic year than the total amount that the towns that compose the RSU spent in the 2008-2009 school year, just before the RSU was established.

The students are doing well, she added. The curriculum has been standardized throughout the RSU’s schools in order to comply with state and federal standards, she said, and student test scores are in the top 30 percent statewide.

The superintendent added that the withdrawal process may be more complicated than people think. If the towns vote on June 12 to pursue withdrawal, she said, they will have to come up with a plan that is approved by the Maine Department of Education. They also will have to negotiate with the RSU about the transfer of assets such as buildings, vehicles and other property.

“That’s a pretty high bar,” she said.

According to Donaldson, if Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine leave RSU 24, the system would lose 1,650 of its 2,600 or so pupils. Ellsworth by itself has more than 1,100 pupils while Hancock has more than 300 and Lamoine nearly 180, he said.

Donaldson said the Lamoine withdrawal group plans to meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 7, at Lamoine Consolidated School to discuss the issue further. A public hearing on the June 12 vote is scheduled at the same time and place on Wednesday, May 30.

The towns that would remain in RSU 24 — Eastbrook, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor — formerly were member towns of school unions 92 and 96.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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