December 18, 2018
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Rural Maine can’t rebound if we let our schools close

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

School districts throughout Maine are about to embark on the yearly budget ritual, presenting our communities with challenges and opportunities. Those challenges seem to routinely involve discussions and decisions about potential consolidation and school closures.

Many, though certainly not all, of the issues that lead school districts to the point where they may have to consider consolidation and school closures can be laid at the feet of consecutive legislatures and governors who have failed for years to follow the will of Maine voters and fund 55 percent of public education. That history can be seen in communities throughout Maine where dwindling numbers of property taxpayers feel they can no longer foot the state’s share of the bill for education.

In some cases, it may make sense to close a school. Services and education can be provided and redundancies can be reduced without harming the students, their education, or the communities. But that is certainly not the case everywhere, and it definitely isn’t the case in my region.

Patten is in a unique position. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, established in our backyard, is already acting as an economic catalyst for the community and the surrounding region. If you look at the trajectory of gateway communities like ours around the country, you see people visiting an area, falling in love with it, and then moving there to set up a small business or raise a family near a national park or monument.

But people’s decision to move doesn’t rely solely on the existence of such sites. If people are looking to raise a family, they will look at local schools, and this is where we must focus our long-term thinking.

I know as well as anyone the constraints we operate under when trying to provide the public services we need with the little money a dwindling number of taxpayers has available in an economically hard-hit region. I also understand the necessity of long-term thinking and vision, and this is particularly true when it comes to our schools.

A member of the RSU 50 school board recently commented the issue of our declining and aging population but, I believe erroneously, arrived at a very different conclusion, namely that we must be open to further consolidation of our schools in order to see our communities grow. Closure of a school will, in most cases, reduce the cost associated directly to the school district. There is less infrastructure to maintain — assuming the district can sell the property to avoid maintaining an empty building — fewer staff to pay and other potential savings.

But those savings will come at a terrible, long-term price.

Reducing the number of teachers, administrators and other staff by closing a school increases unemployment or outmigration. Local school teachers are local residents, meaning they pay taxes, participate in the community and maintain their homes. In addition to keeping existing families and professionals, we must attract new residents, and quality schools do that more than almost anything else.

We must begin to look at the revitalization of our communities as a multifaceted process. We must grow our population again. To do that, we must diversify, embrace our new economic opportunities and strengthen our schools.

School budgets need to ensure local tax dollars spent on education have the highest possible return on investment. This may involve the reduction of redundancies where it makes sense. It may also involve the use of new technologies to connect students to services we cannot yet afford — at least until our population begins to rebound. These investments can also strengthen our schools in ways that will bring back those who may be homeschooling or moved to another district because of what they see as low educational standards, bullying, lack of leadership and so on.

Closing our local schools is a recipe for disaster. If we don’t begin drawing in new people, our communities will die. Quality, nearby schools will draw people in. In other words, we need to do what we can to keep our schools and make them world class, just like our communities.

Richard H. Schmidt III resides in Patten with his wife and two children.

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