ELLSWORTH, Maine — Ellsworth residents, who will vote to stay in or withdraw from Regional School Unit 24 on Nov. 5, heard conflicting views Tuesday about whether or not being a part of the consolidated district has served Ellsworth’s students well.
“I understand very well that the whole policy around consolidation was not handled very well,” said RSU 24 superintendent Suzanne Lukas at a debate that was organized by the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce. But, she said that despite the challenges, savings that came as a result of being in a consolidated district allowed the RSU to spend on improving programs for students.
“I urge you not to focus on how we got here, but look at what are the things that we have gained.”
She was speaking on a panel with Mark Rosborough, the owner of a local insurance agency who has lead the movement to get Ellsworth out of the 12-community school district. The debate attracted about 50 local business owners, employees of the RSU, former teachers and parents.
Rosborough pointed to low morale at the schools, minimal attendance by parents at school board meetings and high turnover amongst teachers as evidence that being in a larger school district was hurting the community.
“I just know that from a personal standpoint that Ellsworth is better served by keeping its resources in Ellsworth,” he said.
He argued that under an independent system, Ellsworth taxpayers would have more control over how their money was being spent, and they could better tailor their schools to meet their students’ needs.
“Why do we all have to be alike? Winter Harbor doesn’t want to be like Ellsworth,” he exclaimed. “We’re geographically and culturally different communities. Let each community run their community.”
But, the superintendent highlighted data that showed that Ellsworth students at both the high school and the elementary-middle school had improved in reading and math since the formation of the RSU, according to tests administered every year by the Northwest Evaluation Association.
On the topic of taxation, which the panelists circled back to repeatedly, both sides agreed that Ellsworth has seen a huge increase in its share of education costs while receiving less in state subsidies.
“Ellsworth is getting hosed by the state,” said Lukas.
But there was disagreement as to how Ellsworth’s education funds should be spent.
“If that’s the case, then let’s take that hosing and spend it in Ellsworth,” said Rosborough, who suspects that the extra money Ellsworth has had to spend is going toward improvements at schools in other communities in the RSU.
“Why should Ellsworth be held back while other communities are brought up to [Ellsworth’s] level?” he said.
Lukas made the point several times that based on her estimates, Ellsworth would be spending significantly more this year if it had remained an independent school system and continued to spend the way it did during the year before consolidation.
After moderator Sarah Newell, an attorney, finished asking questions, she opened the debate up to the audience.
Shawn Hall, a resident who was videotaping the event, asked Lukas if she had talked to her teachers about the issue, saying that teachers “don’t want to speak their mind because they’re afraid.”
Lukas responded by acknowledging that Ellsworth teachers may have seen dramatic increases in the pay of of their colleagues in neighboring communities, while Ellsworth teacher salaries have remained relatively stable under the RSU. She explained that that’s because Ellsworth teachers were paid much more than teachers in more rural areas, prior to the RSU.
“As a district we do need to equalize those kinds of things,” she said. “People are doing the same job day in and day out.”
Ellsworth residents can get more information at a public hearing that has been organized by the withdrawal committee and will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24 in the city council chambers. Another public hearing, organized by RSU 24, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School.