Steuben exploring new public school options

Posted Dec. 27, 2011, at 6:03 p.m.

STEUBEN, Maine — Try, try again.

Steuben Selectman David Glass is eager to form a committee to explore new options for providing quality public education for the Washington County community’s elementary and high school students.

Steuben is now one of 12 communities included in RSU 24. It is the only Washington County community in the mix, the others being the Hancock County communities of Eastbrook, Ellsworth, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor.

During statewide school consolidation efforts that took effect in 2009, Glass and other supporters of Steuben’s K-8 Ella Lewis Grammar School successfully resisted efforts to close the aging school due to dwindling enrollment and growing facility maintenance costs. The community also rejected the concept of busing Ella Lewis’ approximately 100 K-8 students to the new Peninsula Consolidated School that recently opened in the Gouldsboro village of Prospect Harbor as a replacement facility for the aging, and now mothballed, Peninsula School in Winter Harbor.

Amid the many months of financial and political chaos that surrounded sorting out the state’s school consolidation mandates, Steuben explored aligning itself with other RSU structures that included Washington County communities. As an RSU 24 member, Steuben now has one representative on the new school district’s 14-member board.

As they have for decades, high school students from Steuben are bused to Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan. That school was identified in 2010 by the Maine Department of Education as one of the state’s 10 “persistently low-achieving schools” due to students’ low levels of proficiency in reading and math and low levels of improvement. After replacing the principal and extending school day hours, Sumner was deemed eligible for a $1.7 million federal school improvement grant to be allocated over three years.

Business Manager David Bridgham said Tuesday that the current RSU 24 annual budget of $35.5 million is costing Steuben property taxpayers just over $1.7 million. That translates to $11,304 for each of the community’s 152 K-12 students. By comparison, the adjacent community of Gouldsboro pays $10,590 per student and nearby Sorrento pays $10,961. On a districtwide basis, the average cost paid by the 12 communities involved is $8,970 per student.

Bridgham said Steuben’s per-pupil costs are the highest among RSU 24 communities because of high property values there, assessments that have also resulted in the loss of $300,000 in direct subsidies from the state.

Glass wants an exploratory committee to determine if there are more cost-effective options for the town’s 1,080 residents than the status quo. “Sumner has been a big failure,” Glass said in a telephone interview. “And we’re not the only community that’s looking to leave RSU 24. So are Ellsworth, Lamoine and Hancock. RSU 24 seems to be kind of a failure.”

One option Glass would like to explore is Stueben independently operating the existing Ella Lewis Grammar School and establishing a new charter school to be built on town-owned land to meet the needs of the community’s high school students. Currently, Sumner Memorial High School’s enrollment of approximately 275 students includes approximately 52 students from Steuben.

“The state wouldn’t penalize us in any way, as we’ve been in [RSU 24] long enough,” he said. “The law says that, after two years you can leave, and there seems, among politicians, to be a lot of support for the charter school concept.”

Charter schools receive public subsidies but are exempted from some regulations in exchange for accountability in producing specific results, which are spelled out in each school’s charter.

Glass said he expects the issue of Steuben going it alone in providing public education will be among the topics on the warrant for the 2012 town meeting. That meeting is scheduled for Saturday, March 10, at 1 p.m. in the gymnasium of the Ella Lewis Grammar School.

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