The promise of the consolidation movement was reduced costs. Regional School Unit 24 has delivered on that promise. In the year immediately preceding the formation of the district, the 12 communities spent $1,061,000 more for education than they are spending in this fiscal year when adjusted for new state-paid debt service for two elementary schools. That is a million dollars in savings in this year only. Had each community continued to spend the same amount for education they spent in 2008-2009 for these five years, the cumulative savings would amount to more than $9.5 million.
A good example of how a larger district can conserve tax dollars is our food service program. In 2008-2009, prior to consolidation, our communities contributed $422,262 toward the cost of school lunches. Today, five years later, the food service program is self-sustaining and not dependent on local taxes.
Special education is another excellent example. In 2013-2014 the cost of special education is $564,566 less than 2008-2009. During this time we have actually expanded programs. The savings come from sharing of professional service providers.
Proponents for withdrawal consistently try to nullify these significant savings. They claim administrative costs are up when in fact system administration has a demonstrated savings of $171,343 over pre-RSU costs. No matter how you look at the numbers, the annual, voter-approved budgets for RSU 24 demonstrate clearly that we are spending less than what our communities were spending six years ago.
In Lamoine, a citizen group studied the economic feasibility of withdrawal. Their research showed that small, K-8, districts in Hancock County are spending between $13,000 and $19,000 per student. This year, Lamoine actually had a decrease of $67,000 in taxes for education. The town’s per pupil cost was $11,682. Enough said.
It is true that many residents have not seen these savings in their property tax bills. The state school funding formula is unkind to coastal Maine. Based on state valuations and student enrollments, the formula has ruthlessly diverted money from our district. We have seen a drop of $11.2 million in state aid over the life of RSU 24. This is difficult to fathom, but when state valuations in Hancock have increased by $64 million and in Ellsworth by $120 million over the past five years, it is clear that these municipalities will have to raise more local tax dollars under the present state funding formula, whether or not they are a part of RSU 24.
So, without a convincing argument over costs, those who wish to withdraw have alleged that the quality of education has suffered. This, too, is unsubstantiated. District data show growth in student achievement. Elementary students in Lamoine, Hancock and Ellsworth have fared well on state and nationally normed tests. High school test results have been mixed, showing good growth on nationally normed tests but less success on the state administered SAT. However, this year the state testing at Ellsworth High School shows strong improvement and places our students above the state average.
During the tenure of RSU 24, research-based programs in social studies, mathematics, language arts and writing have been introduced. Improvements are underway in science. Alternative education and three new vocational school programs are expanding what we offer secondary students. Students have increased access to college level curriculum. A Visual and Performing Arts Academy has been launched as well as a Marine Pathways program. School programs have been enhanced by the addition of laptops and iPads at the secondary level and increased technology in elementary settings. Support programs are strengthening reading instruction, and Web-based math support is available to students anytime and anywhere.
RSU 24 has been able to offer high-quality staff training that would be difficult to replicate in a small district. Providing trainers to help teachers with implementation of new curriculum is costly but attainable only when our 12 communities pool resources.
When faulty arguments regarding money and programs are dispelled, the withdrawal issue comes down to “local control.” Many proponents of withdrawal say small districts have greater resident participation. They reminisce over a high level of involvement that they say suffers in a larger district. These claims ignore three facts.
First, school board meetings in large or small districts do not draw lots of community participation. Records of meetings before and after the start of the RSU attest to this. Actually that is a shame. Board meetings are ripe with information, and important decisions are made.
Second, residents do have control over budgets with both a district meeting and referendum.
Third, the days of individual schools choosing what to teach their students are over. Local control of curriculum has been eroded by both state and federal mandates to implement national standards.
On Nov. 5 voters in three of our 12 communities will make an important decision. They will weigh their choice in the light of tax impact, program quality and local control. Let accurate information guide their decision.
Suzanne Lukas is superintendent of RSU 24.