ROCKLAND, Maine — Weber Roberts said he and his wife found Rockland to be their absolute dream town when they relocated to Maine in 2001.
But, he said because of the poor quality of Rockland schools, the family moved to Hope in 2009 and have their children attending that community’s school.
“The community of Rockland is an amazing community, but if you want to attract young families that are going to keep it vibrant, you need to put some money and resources into the schools or you’re going to end up with just a lot of retired people living here,” Roberts said.
Roberts and his wife are not alone in their dissatisfaction with the schools of Regional School Unit 13.
Sixteen students, whose residences are within RSU 13, attend public schools outside the district through superintendent agreements. All of those are to the neighboring schools in the Camden area.
Another 23 students who live in RSU 13 attend private schools, according to information provided by the district. The largest recipient is Midcoast Christian Academy in Thomaston and provides an education for high-school age students.
Another 33 students within RSU 13 are home-schooled.
RSU 13 Superintendent Lew Collins said his district’s numbers for superintendent agreements and homeschooling are not that unusual. RSU 13 has a district-wide enrollment of slightly more than 1,900 students.
“Given the size of our district, this is not a large number at all, but we’d love the opportunity to serve all age-eligible students who reside in our six towns,” Collins said.
There were 1,591 superintendent agreements last year throughout Maine’s public schools. The numbers for 2013-14 have not yet been compiled by the state. Many of the agreements were rejected by the superintendents but approved on appeal to the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.
In the statistics released for 2012-13 by the state, the district with the most superintendent agreements for students leaving the school system was RSU 9, which includes 10 towns in the Farmington area. That district had 56 students educated in a public school outside the district, with 24 coming into the district from another public school. Lewiston had 54 going out and 19 coming in under those agreements. Waterville had the most students coming into their district through superintendent agreements last year, with 81 coming in and 24 going out to another public school.
Collins said people home school for reasons that are usually quite personal, so the district does not have a great deal of data on the “why.” He said the same is true for parents who send their children to private schools, pointing out that 10 of the 23 students who attend private schools go to Christian schools.
But several parents from Rockland or formerly from Rockland said the student transfer numbers don’t reflect the full picture because it does not include students whose families simply moved out of Rockland to be able to attend another district.
“There is a bigger trend here,” said Richard Thackeray Jr. of Rockland.
Thackeray and his wife, a physician, chose Rockland when they moved to Maine in 2004. He said they love the community and all it offers for culture.
But, he said, they have decided to move because of the state of the school system. They have bought land in Camden, will build a house there and sell their home in Rockland.
They had their 9-year-old son attend the Children’s House Montessori in Camden before tuitioning him to Camden-Rockport Elementary School last year and now have a superintendent’s agreement for that school this year. The two younger children attend Montessori.
He said sufficient resources are not being committed to the Rockland school system, and there is not enough emphasis on high achievement. He said he knows of many more parents who have moved their families out of the district or obtained superintendent agreements so their children can be educated elsewhere.
The Rev. Seth Jones, senior pastor of the Rockland Congregational Church, and his wife Kate said their daughter Rhiannon attended Rockland schools after they moved to the area in 2009. The parents became concerned, however, about what he said was the evisceration of the district’s gifted and talented program.
The school was not able to provide an education that challenged her, they said. They said there were many supportive teachers, while others were not as accommodating. They praised Principal Tom Forti for his efforts but said the resources were simply not there.
The Rev. Jones said that their daughter, who was a sophomore, came to them during the last school year and said she could not continue going to Rockland. The family looked at a variety of options including going to Camden Hills Regional High School, Islesboro High School or the local private Watershed School.
In the end, she applied and was accepted at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., even though she had not graduated from Oceanside. She attends the four-year liberal arts college which serves students of high-school age. Their daughter is doing well and is studying in the hopes of working someday for the FBI as a profiler, her parents said.
Both parents said that the constant change of schools within the district is one problem they see in RSU 13. A little more than two years ago, the district merged its high schools — Rockland District High School and Georges Valley High School into Oceanside East in Rockland, which serves grades 10th through 12th, and Oceanside West in Thomaston, grades eighth and ninth.
The school board is studying whether to consolidate the two Oceansides into one in Rockland. The district is also studying whether to merge the two district middle schools and whether elementary schools can be consolidated in an effort to save money.
Kate Jones said that students have no sense of cultural identity with the constant changes made.
Jones said the community needs to make more of an investment in the schools.
Roberts echoed those comments. He said Rockland had a fantastic community development director in Rodney Lynch several years ago who was able to find grant money for community projects. He said the school needs to do that to invest more money in the system.
Roberts, who along with his wife operates Bench Dogs — which specializes in woodworking such as cabinetry, said that there has been too much of an emphasis on keeping taxes lower rather than in providing the money needed for a better education system. He said if the community wants to grow and remain vital, it must invest in education.
The superintendent had proposed in his 2013-14 budget the addition of a half-time development director to seek grants for RSU 13. That position was cut from the budget package before it was sent to voters. Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour said, however, that she had spoken with Rockland’s mayor about the possibility of sharing its community development director in order to seek grants for the schools.
The 2013-14 budget approved, however, it also cut more teaching positions from the district. Voters approved putting $343,000 back into the 2013-14 budget to retain several teaching jobs, but the superintendent opted not to reinstate those, saying money needed to be set aside to prepare for the expected continued loss of state aid next year. That move was met by criticism from citizens who had lobbied to get the money back in the budget.
Roberts said community leaders need to take the lead in getting more money for the schools. He also said the district needs to make a commitment to its teachers and treat them as professionals. He said, that way, the district could attract the best teachers.
“You’re never going to attract people who will want to start up businesses, if you don’t have good schools,” he said.
The Rockland schools have been plagued for decades with low test scores and dropout rates well above the state average.
Dr. Eric Schenk of Rockport is one of the families who moved out of the district. He and his wife have 9-year-old twins and a 3-year-old. Schenk served on the RSU 13 Board, representing South Thomaston, until July 2012 when he resigned, citing divisiveness on the board.
Schenk said his family moved to Rockport shortly after, in part because of concerns about the quality of the education and a desire to get a better one for their children. Their twins now attend Camden-Rockport Elementary School.
Schenk said there are many good, hard-working teachers in the district, but there are structural problems with the district.
“It’s a difficult job, I don’t know to fix it. I wish I had a magic wand,” Schenk said.
Collins said he and the board are trying to move RSU 13 forward as a destination school district in a variety of ways. There are five students attending RSU 13 this year through superintendent agreements from other districts.
“I’ll be exploring with the administrators and the board the idea of offering, on a volunteer basis, early language immersion in Chinese, similar to what several school districts in other states currently offer,” Collins said.
He said the district is also going to look at trying to offer high-quality pre-kindergarten programs as well expansion of the gifted and talented program.
“These initiatives, along with our strategic plan goal of offering proficiency-based learning and our renewed focus on math instruction should entice many students to return to RSU 13. Our adult education programs and theater program at Oceanside-East are already highly respected and a real draw for many students,” Collins said
“ We’d like every resident to be proud to send their children to RSU 13, and about 97 percent already do. We’ll try hard to make sure that this is the district where everyone wants to go,” the superintendent said.