Direct democracy and crafting town school budgets

Posted Sept. 16, 2008, at 5:18 p.m.

I live in Lamoine. This budget season, we learned again the value of direct democratic participation in our school and budget. Twice since May, our school committee proposed a school budget. Twice it passed overwhelmingly at town meeting. And twice, under new state law rules, it was voted down by town-wide referendum. Only on the third try, with school about to open, did we vote ourselves a budget to fund our school and our high school students’ tuition.

It was a difficult summer here in Lamoine. But struggling with our school budget was also a healthy experience for our community. The school committee took the budget back to the drawing board, held discussions about school programs and costs, and proposed revised budgets. Residents consulted with neighbors, proposing suggestions and sharing in our difficult choices. A survey showed that some townspeople voted against the budget because they thought the budget too high while others voted “no” because it was too low.

The same scenario has played out this summer in other towns (most recently in Cape Elizabeth). Although it stirs up emotion, it engages residents in important school and town matters. It brings out lots of information about how the school is run and funded. It helps us, as townspeople, know who our neighbors are and what we all value. It’s what makes a democracy a democracy.

This is precisely the kind of democratic participation and healthy decision-making that Maine’s school reorganization law puts in jeopardy. My town offers another good example. Lamoine is edging closer to being annexed into a new regional school unit. If we were in RSU 7, little if any of the important resident input and discussion over our budget would have happened. The school committee’s extensive efforts to inform us and engage us would have been absent because we wouldn’t have a direct voice over our own school program and budget.

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Instead, decisions would be discussed by an RSU board of 15 members, with one from Lamoine. Information and decisions about which personnel, curriculum, activities, and services to keep and which ones to cut would involve 12 or 13 other schools and as many communities and their residents. The deliberations would not take place in our town, further limiting our direct participation. Inevitably, as we’ve seen in SADs, intertown politics, not neighbors talking with neighbors, would determine the result for Lamoine.

Why would Maine residents vote for a reorganization plan that would take away their own voting and “discussing” power over their schools? They don’t have to. The Legislature amended the school reorganization law to allow for Alternative Organizational Structures, or AOSs in place of RSUs. These permit continuing community involvement, ownership, and decisions over their own schools while encouraging important collaborations among communities to benefit kids.

The strengths of the AOS option are becoming clearer as more regions pursue it. RSUs place all decisions in the hands of a single school board and administration; AOSs include local school committees and a balance between towns and central administration. RSUs own all school property and debt; AOSs permit towns and existing districts to retain them. RSUs have a single budget; AOSs permit towns to maintain their own budgets while requiring shared costs where money can be saved.

Creating a plan for an AOS is turning out to be more complicated than the more centralized RSU plans. It requires more information and more discussion from residents themselves to arrive at “inter-local” agreements among towns and districts. Like Lamoine’s budget discussions, these involve hard choices that require commitment, patience, and leadership. Yet more communities and residents, from Falmouth to Waterville-Winslow to Greenville to Machias to Van Buren, are pursuing this option, particularly as school committees and townspeople understand what the RSU structure requires them to give up. Mount Desert Island’s AOS plan has been approved and regions such as Blue Hill-Deer Isle are in the drafting stage.

Our experience in Lamoine has reminded us that we residents are vital to our school. When we have a direct say over the school’s programs and over our own budget and taxes, we know more and we care more about our school. We know more and we care more about our neighbors and our town. That care, the educational research shows, carries over into taking an interest in the quality of our kids’ education and of our community as a whole. We all share in being accountable.

I can’t imagine why we would vote to give this privilege and this responsibility away.

Gordon Donaldson is a resident of Lamoine and a professor of education at the University of Maine.

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