June 20, 2018
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School withdrawal debate in Ellsworth brings up merits of old versus new

By Nell Gluckman, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The importance of preparing students for the 21st century was pitted against the merits of local control and sense of community at a public hearing on Thursday. The hearing was about whether or not this city should vote on Nov. 5 to withdraw from Regional School Unit 24.

The RSU, which includes Ellsworth and 11 towns to the east and north of the city, was called a corporation and a $36 million business and its 12-member school board was referred to as a “mega-board” at a hearing at City Hall on Thursday night. At the hearing, the RSU 24 superintendent and the chairman of the withdrawal committee, who organized the meeting, were given the opportunity to present their positions to the city council and the public, before members of the audience were invited to speak.

“I just really would like to see Ellsworth go back to being its own little town with local control,” said Anne Dale, a former teacher.

Advocates of staying in the RSU were less vocal at the meeting, which attracted close to 70 people, but those who did speak argued that the RSU is better suited to help students meet federal and state standards than a new, independent school district would be.

“The kids who are in 8th grade right now have to master those standards or they will not graduate,” said RSU 24 superintendent Suzanne Lukas. She was referring to the Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Jill Cohen, the principal of Mountain View School, which is part of RSU 24, spoke against withdrawal.

“I’ve heard reference to school board meetings from the 1970s and ’80s but the demands for Jessica have changed,” she said, referring to her daughter, who is in 10th grade. Though she is a principal, Cohen said she was speaking at the event as a mother.

“It’s like watching the Andy Griffith show,” Fred Meyer said about listening to those who advocated for a return to the days of an Ellsworth school system run by Ellsworth residents. The show has been criticized for romanticizing 1960s America, while ignoring complicated social issues of that time.

In the most tense moment of the evening, Cohen said she’s worried that her daughter would be thrust into an “experiment” if Ellsworth had to set up a new school district next year. Members of the audience laughed and called out that it would not be an experiment because the city had run a school district before.

Lukas acknowledged that many Ellsworth residents had felt forced into consolidation, but the superintendent said that withdrawing at this point would be a step backward.

“I plead with you to try to put aside the how of this,” Lukas said. “The how was not pleasant. But here we are five years later. We’ve put together a school system that’s servicing our students well.”

She showed large posters with colored graphs, demonstrating that Ellsworth students had steadily improved on standardized tests since the start of the RSU. She also pointed to new social studies, math and writing programs that are being implemented in the RSU’s schools as evidence that the savings the RSU accrued has translated into more learning for students.

Mark Rosborough, chairman of Ellsworth’s withdrawal committee, backed away from his former argument that becoming an independent school district would save taxpayers money, but emphasized the importance of keeping Ellsworth tax dollars in Ellsworth.

“As we got into things we found there isn’t a lot we’re going to do about reducing taxes per se,” he said, describing the 16-month process he has undertaken to get Ellsworth this vote. “But what we did find out was that those taxes were going into this large pot and being distributed throughout the RSU.”

Much of the discussion centered around teacher morale before and after consolidation.

Karrie Alley, a parent, read a letter she said was from a teacher who wished to remain anonymous. According to Alley, the teacher said she felt “depleted,” “unworthy,” “undervalued,” and said the fact that her $34,000 salary had not moved much in recent years was a “slap in the face.”

Connie Sisson, a retired teacher, said, “In an RSU consolidated environment, curriculum optimization and development is no longer just a walk down the hall with a heartfelt, meaningful conversation.”

Sharon McIntyre, another retired teacher, described the days when Ellsworth parents and teachers had a close relationship with their school board.

“I had lots of run-ins with the Ellsworth school board,” she said as the audience laughed. “It was from a position of trust and respect. They were Ellsworth people with Ellsworth concerns.”

After the meeting, kindergarten teacher Jane Phillips said, “I don’t think people’s morale is as low as some people perceive.”

But she added that there was not much teacher input on changes to the curriculum anymore and that she’d be voting to withdraw.

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