June 23, 2018
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Move forward, don’t break up RSU 20

By Ray Wirth, Special to the BDN

Move forward because the idea of the larger school unit, Regional School Unit 20, is still a sound one. The RSU is supposed to be about reducing administrative and maintenance costs, sharing expertise, more fully utilizing staff and, ­yes, about enhancing choice for students. Given openness toward change and the right leadership, these are all real benefits that can still be realized­­ if we give it time.

Move forward because drawing lines and segregating off into separate educational fiefdoms doesn’t fit with common sense. Taking a long view, the RSU is just getting started. Forming the RSU took a huge amount of work and came at a significant cost —­­ some say as much as $1 million. What a waste of time, money and sweat equity to dissolve the RSU now.

Move forward because as even the advocates of withdrawal have publicly admitted, there are no guarantees withdrawal will save money in the short term. It is even less likely to save money in the long term. Regardless of what happens, towns in old School Administrative District 56 will need to bring per-pupil costs down to state average. (Former SAD 56, representing Stockton Springs, Searsport and Frankfort, and former SAD 34, representing Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville, came together to form RSU 20 in 2008, though Frankfort has already decided to leave.) The upcoming budget year will be tough, but no vote will change that. Let’s start now to begin crafting a sensible plan for 2014­-15.

Keep moving forward because the greatest threats to education as we know it come not from the school across the river but from reductions in state and federal funding and from pressures toward vouchers and privatization. The larger school union will be better able to weather the storms of these changes. The school union that offers more choices to students will lose fewer students to external choices, such as private schools, homeschooling, online learning, and vouchers. If you doubt this is coming, look to Ohio and Pennsylvania where a combined 60,000 students are enrolled as full­-time students in virtual schools. As a result, public schools in these states have 60,000 empty seats, costs that are much the same, and half a billion dollars less in local, state and federal funding.

Never stop moving forward — because the tired “two cultures” argument being used by withdrawal advocates is something to put to rest if we want our children to step beyond the prejudices of their grandparents. If our students can successfully participate in exchanges in Boston, Brooklyn, and overseas, and they have, then they can successfully “exchange” with students at a high school six miles down the road.

Don’t go backward; move forward because both of our high schools have valuable things to offer, and no single approach works for all students. There are students at both high schools who can be better served by crossing the river for their education. It may be that some teachers can be more fully utilized if part of their day is spent on the other side. Searsport District High School is moving in the direction of project-­based learning; Belfast Area High School is more traditional and provides ample opportunity for advanced classes. The ideal solution is to have two campuses and to allow for choice. When it seemed Searsport would welcome in the company DCP­ Midstream and its proposed 14-­story waterfront storage tank for liquefied propane gas, there was a lot of talk about the interdependence and the regional economy. We heard how the prosperity of our towns is closely intertwined. “What wasn’t good for Belfast couldn’t be good for Searsport,” went the argument. The proposed tank and its miles-­down-­the-­bay sightlines is a great metaphor for the fact that we are all in this together.

Working together for the betterment of all of our schools and all our young people will ensure this will be the kind of place where our great-grandchildren will want to live.

Ray Wirth, of Belfast, is an English teacher at Searsport District High School.

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