CARIBOU, Maine — Farmers, parents and community members voiced varying opinions at a recent RSU 39 public hearing about the potato harvest break high school students take each fall.
Under the current practice in the school district that serves Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm, high school students begin their classes in August roughly two weeks before middle- and elementary-level students start. The younger students start later and continue their schooling while upperclassmen take harvest break in the fall.
But operating the grade levels at different times is costing the RSU an estimated $30,000.
Adopting a “common calendar,” during which all RSU students would attend school on the same days year-round, was one of the options mentioned during the public hearing held on Jan. 22 at Caribou Middle School. Some in attendance were for unified schedules, some were against denying farmers the extra help during harvest, and others thought the decision should be put to voters.
“It’s a decision where you have to weigh multiple factors — and it’s not just a majority poll of any stakeholder, it’s a multifaceted issue” RSU 39 Superintendent Frank McElwain said. “The board knows they’re making a sensitive decision one way or another — even remaining status quo would be sensitive.”
Despite the bitter cold temperatures, McElwain said attendance was fair for the public hearing and “certainly enough to make it worthwhile.”
Steve Beaulieu, who farms with his family in Limestone, spoke in favor of maintaining the harvest break.
“Every year we use five or six high school students and some of their family members at our farm,” he said. “We feel it’s beneficial to the students, our farm and the community in general because the money these children earn, they’re all spending it in the local area.”
He also emphasized that “the farmers pay their taxes. We’re part of the community too, just like anybody else.”
Beaulieu highly favored continuing the status quo, but would also be open to a common calendar where all students would start school at the same time and have a fall break for the harvest.
“I have a son who’s only 7 — and he’d be out [of school] too. That’s how it was years ago, I don’t see why it can’t continue on,” he said.
But another farmer, also from Limestone, presented an opposing view to the RSU 39 school board.
Veteran school board member Fred Edgecomb described how his farm has had success in hiring adults for the harvest, as opposed to hiring high school students for just over two weeks.
“If students are only out for two weeks, and we’re digging for four, two weeks doesn’t really help us — you need adults to work before, you need adults to work after,” he explained, adding that adults who work harvest need the money as much as the students do.
Edgecomb also commented on his school board experience, mentioning that from an educational perspective, everything a school board decides puts the students first.
“So if you ask a question about releasing the students for harvest break … how does it affect them?” he said.
“It does affect them, and I think that can be shown by statistics and the teaching staff, if you inquire; you get [students] programmed for a few weeks, then you stop the program, you start it all over again,” he said. “There is an effect.”
Edgecomb also commented on how saving money from the RSU’s bottom line would affect the community as a whole.
“In these days, it appears that expenses are relevant at whatever level — wherever you can make some cuts — because if you don’t, it’s going to come back on all the taxpayers and we’re all concerned about that issue,” he added.
As there are many layers to the complex issue, one attendee offered an idea.
“I think probably the most productive way to get around this obstacle would be to put the vote to the citizens as to whether they want to continue with harvest break or not,” said Philip McDonough, a Caribou city councilor. “That would simplify the whole process.”
McElwain anticipates that a decision on the subject, or further discussion, will most likely occur during the next school board meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at the superintendent’s building.