ST. GEORGE, Maine — Though the Nov. 6 referendum question asking residents if they want to withdraw from the school district is nonbinding, support for the measure would “send a message” about local concerns.
That was the point offered repeatedly Thursday night by some St. George citizens among the 60 attending a two-hour public hearing on the upcoming referendum.
“There’s no checks in the system,” said resident Josh McPhail of the current arrangement in which St. George is part of the six-community Regional School Unit 13.
McPhail, who is a teacher at the St. George School, said the best way is for the town to go it alone, but he also stressed that a “yes” vote on Nov. 6 does not mean that withdrawal will occur. It would mean only that the town would continue to study the feasibility of such an action.
“It sends a message that you care about your school,” MacPhail said.
He pointed out that the RSU 13 Board voted to send eighth-grade students from the St. George School to Oceanside West High School in Thomaston against the wishes of the community and eliminated athletic programs at the school without the support of the community.
“Decisions are being made by people who don’t live in town,” McPhail said.
Resident Anthony Speranza also said the town needs to send RSU 13 a message. He noted that last year when the school board came down to hear input from citizens about keeping the eighth grade in town, one board member was not paying attention.
“I saw a board member knitting like she was Madame Defarge from a ‘Tale of Two Cities’,” Speranza said.
Resident Stan Levy said he, too, felt a “yes” vote was needed to send a message to the board.
Terry Driscoll, chairman of the Town Education Committee, gave a presentation on that group’s study. He said the committee is taking no position on whether the referendum should be approved.
But the report showed that since RSU 13 was formed in 2009, the district has lost nearly a combined $9 million in state aid during those years, 70 staff positions have been cut, the MacDougal School has been closed, a new high school system has been created, and student performance districtwide has been well below the state average.
Don Choquette, a former RSU 13 board member from St. George, acknowledged that the performance of students has been disappointing.
“This is very discouraging. The system is still broke,” Choquette said.
Levy said St. George students performed well at the lower grades but then entered the combined schools of RSU 13.
“We’re dumping them into a system that won’t help them,” Levy said.
One concern voiced by some residents, however, is what the alternative would be for high school students if the district eventually withdrew from RSU 13.
RSU 13 Business Manager Scott Vaitones said that the Maine Board of Education will not approve a withdrawal plan if the community does not have signed agreements with other districts to take the town’s high school students for 10 years.
The town education committee report states that if St. George withdraws from the district students would be tuitioned to other high schools including possibly RSU 13’s Oceanside high schools.
“You can’t make the assumption that RSU 13 would take the students or that Camden Hills Regional High School would take the students,” Vaitones said.
Sherman Hoyt, who joined the RSU 13 Board from St. George this year, pointed out that there have been changes within the school board and administration in the past year. He said there are new school board members, including a new chairwoman, and there is a new superintendent.
Hoyt said he believes the new superintendent would be more sympathetic to the concerns of the town.
“We still have a long way to go,” he acknowledged.
RSU 13 Board member Loren Andrews of Cushing admitted to the St. George residents that he “fell asleep at the wheel” in May when the town proposed creating an expeditionary school that would allow eighth-graders to remain and students from other RSU 13 towns to attend.
Driscoll said he also senses a different tone currently from the school board.
RSU 13 Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour of Rockland attended the meeting. The school board will hold its next meeting in St. George.
A second public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the town office.
RSU 13 consists of Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Cushing, Owls Head and South Thomaston.