March 29, 2020
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How to free your town from school consolidation

Daryn Slover | Sun Journal
Daryn Slover | Sun Journal
Jon Holmes of Dixfield is spearheading his town's campaign to leave RSU 10.

Jon Holmes wants to be clear: He loves Mountain Valley. He’s a fan of Rumford’s high school and the education students receive there. He roots for its teams, thinks highly of the people. The whole school system is great, he says.

He just doesn’t want Dixfield to be part of it anymore.

“The proof is in the pumpkin: Taxes have not gone down,” Holmes said. “Bigger is not better.”

Holmes, a 67-year-old Dixfield grandfather who has had grandchildren on both Dixfield and Rumford sports teams, is spearheading his town’s campaign to leave RSU 10, a 3-year-old consolidated school system that married Dixfield-area’s SAD 21, Buckfield-area’s SAD 39, Rumford-area’s SAD 43 and Hanover.

He believes the large school system costs too much, and he worries the RSU’s high schools will eventually be consolidated, forcing longer bus rides, making fewer sports teams available for student athletes and giving Dixfield even less say than it has now over the education of its kids. He believes his town was much better off when it was one-quarter of a small school district rather than one-12th of a large one.

In this marriage of school systems, Holmes wants a divorce.

And he isn’t alone.

Across the state nearly 30 towns out of the 136 in RSUs want to withdraw from their school system. Some say the savings promised by the state when it required consolidation three years ago never materialized and they’re spending too much money. Some say they were forced by the state into a partnership they regret. Others just want their autonomy back.

“They want complete local control, which is not something that really anyone can argue against,” said Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of RSU 2, from which Monmouth is seeking withdrawal.

As Maine’s first Regional School Units hit 30 months old — the point at which the state law allows towns to leave their school systems — the number of disgruntled townspeople demanding withdrawal is growing. Adding fuel to the fire: Three years after it was implemented, no one really knows for sure yet whether school consolidation has saved taxpayers money or given kids a better education, the two biggest goals of the effort.

But while most RSUs could lose one or two towns if withdrawals are successful, RSU 10 is in an unusual position. Of its 12 towns, at least four have talked on some level about leaving.

In Dixfield, Holmes is leading the charge. He wants his town out — wants all four of the former SAD 21 towns out, actually, so they can reform their old small school system again — and the sooner the better.

“(Consolidation) hasn’t saved us money,” he said. “And it isn’t going to save us money.”

Improve education, save money

School consolidation was proposed in 2007 by then-Gov. John Baldacci. His original plan called for cutting Maine’s 290 school systems to 26 in an effort to create larger, more efficient and cost-effective districts. He said consolidation would improve education and save the state and towns $250 million over three years. The plan, though, proved controversial. Towns worried about losing local control and parents feared their little neighborhood schools would be forced to close in favor of larger or more modern schools elsewhere in their new school system.

The Legislature eventually softened Baldacci’s plan, allowing 80 school systems of at least 2,500 students each in urban areas and at least 1,200 in rural areas, with some exceptions. Such consolidation was expected to save the state $36.5 million in school aid the first year because it would give schools less money for administration and transportation. Towns were expected to save money, too, since a consolidated school system could group-purchase items and services and could operate with fewer administrators.

Despite potential savings, many towns weren’t eager to partner. To get them to comply, the state said it would penalize small, unconsolidated school systems by cutting their state aid and giving them less priority when it came to funding school construction. That got their attention. The state law passed in 2007 and by 2009 Maine’s first regional school units, or RSUs, were forming.

But some towns still weren’t happy about it.

“I hate to use the word ‘extortion,’ but when this RSU (proposal) came in, the state was basically saying that they were going to cut our funding if we didn’t join the RSUs. From a business perspective that’s either blackmail or extortion. You know what I mean? We didn’t go into this RSU on a really good note,” said Lolisa Windover, who represents Peru on the RSU 10 school board.

Those non-consolidation penalties eventually were dropped by the Legislature. Maine ended up with 164 school systems, six times the number Baldacci had hoped for and twice what the Legislature wanted. State law required already-merged RSUs to stay together for three years before any town within it could leave. Last session the Legislature lowered that to 30 months.

In January, Maine’s first RSUs reached their 30-month birthday. Some celebrated by talking withdrawal.

It’s not an easy process. In order to leave an RSU, towns must complete a complex 22-step procedure that begins with a petition circulated by anyone in that town and ends with a certified vote by the town’s residents and a Certificate of Withdrawal from the state. In between, the withdrawing town must negotiate with its RSU to settle myriad issues, including shared debt, possession of items purchased together and custody of buildings and staff members.

“It is, in a lot of ways, very much like a divorce,” said Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. “In a divorce you have to settle who owes who what.”

The withdrawing town must also have a plan for educating its students. That plan could involve running its own schools solo, partnering with another RSU, school system or town, paying students’ tuition to attend area schools of their choice or even sending students back to school in the same RSU it’s leaving.

That’s what tiny Portage Lake did this year when it withdrew from RSU 32. The Aroostook County town had been part of the school system for years, first as a School Administrative District, then as an RSU. Townspeople liked the education their children received, but a quirk of the funding formula meant Portage Lake, with its high-value lake-front property, was contributing 35 percent of the funding and just 13 percent of the students.

Although superintendents typically remain neutral when it comes to withdrawal, RSU 32’s actually suggested Portage Lake leave. He thought the town would be better off contracting with the RSU to educate its 40 students rather than remaining a full member of the school system. He was right. The town’s education spending dropped from $694,000 a year to $480,000 a year, a savings of $214,000 for a town of 391 people. State aid increased, making up the difference for the rest of the towns in the RSU, because high-value Portage Lake was no longer included in the state’s RSU funding formula.

“We’ve gotten lots of phone calls coming in from all over the state, from Rockland and all over these other communities, that are contemplating withdrawing,” said RSU 32 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson. “Same thing, very high valuations, and they’ve kind of been talking.”

However, every town’s situation is unique. Just because Portage Lake saved money in that situation doesn’t mean all other towns will.

Towns must have their RSU-negotiated settlement and education plan approved by the Maine Department of Education, as well as by voters of the town. The entire withdrawal process can take a year or more.

The withdrawal process has been in place for decades, when it applied to SADs. Although it remains substantially the same, the process was tweaked slightly for RSUs. For example, rather than needing a two-thirds majority, between Aug. 30, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2014, withdrawing towns will only need a simple majority of voters to approve the plan, though the number of total votes cast must equal at least half the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

Historically for SADs, about two-thirds failed, gave up, or reconciled with their school systems. Only one-third actually withdrew.

Connerty-Marin predicts that will hold true with the current wave of RSU withdrawals.

“Because the process is the same as before, I don’t think the result will be very different either. In most cases communities will determine that there’s not much of an advantage to splitting apart,” he said. “But in a few cases they will.”

Following the leader

RSU 10 includes 12 towns and three former SADs: Canton, Carthage, Dixfield, Peru (SAD 21); Buckfield, Hartford, Sumner (SAD 39); Byron, Mexico, Roxbury and Rumford (SAD 43); and Hanover.

People in at least four towns have talked about withdrawing. In Dixfield, Holmes has gathered signatures on a petition. In Buckfield, residents made noises about leaving during budget talks, though no petition — the first formal step — has been circulated and the town’s school board representative believes those discussions have quieted down. In Byron, residents are collecting data and seriously looking into the process. In Peru, residents want to withdraw, but they’re waiting to see how it goes with Dixfield.

“We’re kind of following Jon’s footsteps, see what he does and how it works, then see how we do it,” said Windover, Peru’s school board representative and a proponent of withdrawal.

Holmes believes residents of Canton and Carthage are also waiting to see how he does. He said people from both towns have expressed interest in leaving the RSU, though the school system’s superintendent, Tom Ward, said he has not heard withdrawal talk from those towns. Their school board representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

The superintendent said people in Hartford and Sumner have also questioned whether they would do better away from the school system, though he has heard no formal discussion or seen a petition from either town.

Although still early in the process, Holmes is the furthest along of any withdrawal proponent in the RSU. He has circulated a petition, received more than the required number of signatures and is on the selectmen’s meeting agenda for Monday, Aug. 27. He believes he has the support of town officials and townspeople.

“Everybody is all for this,” he said.

Statewide, each town has its own reasons for considering withdrawal.

In RSU 10, the reasons vary from person to person.

Windover in Peru wants more local control over the education of her town’s children. Peru’s schools are small, the community tight-knit, and Windover wants to keep it that way. But she also believes small schools and small towns are at the mercy of a large school system. Peru has one vote on the 17-member school board, giving it little say in setting educational policy and other issues.

“Bigger is not always better,” she said. “We’re in an area where it’s a very strong community and we have parents involved here at school and helping with different things. It just seems like the bigger you get, the farther away you are from even knowing what’s going on.”

Anne Simmons-Edmunds, a member of Byron’s Board of Selectmen, believes her tiny town is simply paying too much.

“It’s not fair. We’re a population of 120-something registered voters and to ask 120 registered voters to pay a quarter-of-a-million dollars for 24 students to go to school, it’s ludicrous,” she said.

Holmes has multiple reasons for wanting Dixfield to leave RSU 10. Although consolidation was supposed to save money, he said his taxes have increased, as has school spending. In 2008-09, the last year before Dixfield joined RSU 10, it spent just under $1.4 million on education. This year it has budgeted just under $1.8 million.

He also believes the school system will eventually consolidate Dirigo High School in Dixfield and Mountain Valley High School in Rumford — a plan proposed during this budget season. That idea was dropped for this year after 600 protesters, most wearing blue “Save Dirigo” and “Endangered Species, Dirigo Cougars” T-shirts, packed an RSU 10 school board meeting. But Holmes believes the idea will be brought up again, and he doesn’t like it. Not only would a combined high school mean a longer bus ride for some kids, he said, but it would also lead to combined sports teams, which would mean fewer spots for student athletes.

“Instead of having two basketball teams and two JV teams and two of everything, we’re going to have one of everything. So half the kids, whether it’s Dixfield or Rumford, are not going to be playing sports, and I think that’s very important,” he said.

He wants Dixfield to get out now, while it still has its high school and before taxes go up more. Although there is no guarantee Dixfield would save money by leaving the school system and consolidation supporters say it’s unlikely a single town or small school system could afford to go out on its own anymore, Holmes believes his town can. Ultimately, he would like his old SAD 21 back.

“I just think we could do it cheaper in Dixfield and have local control, which we don’t have now because the other folks have more votes, more clout, than we do for our schools,” he said.

Dixfield has two representatives on the 17-member school board. Rumford has three.

But has it saved money?

Those involved with school consolidation say it has its positive points:

* Teachers have a larger network of colleagues with whom to collaborate.

* Students have more opportunities and a wider array of classes to choose from since they can take courses from any school in the system.

* Taxpayers can benefit because the larger school system group-purchases supplies and services, saving money.

“I think we’ve done everything we said we’d be able to do. In the first year we saved $650,000 just in administrative positions,” said Ward, the RSU 10 superintendent.

RSU 10 also was awarded a $1.2 million anti-bullying grant to train staff. That’s not just savings but income.

“We’re seeing very positive results, and we wouldn’t have had that to work with if we weren’t an RSU,” he said. “They wanted a large district. And what was in our favor was here were three districts coming together.”

But those involved in Maine’s consolidation effort say it has its drawbacks, too. One of the biggest: No one really knows whether it has saved local taxpayers money overall or not.

The state did save $36.5 million in school aid the first year because it gave schools less money for administration and transportation, and it continues to save about $26 million a year because it is still giving schools less money for administration than it was before, according to the Maine Department of Education.

But officials and school system administrators say it’s extremely difficult to tell how much money, if any, towns are saving. Because of inflation and other factors, costs have gone up since consolidation was implemented. Although administrators were cut, common RSU-wide contracts tended to raise teacher salaries and benefits in towns that had been paying less by themselves. The poor economy has affected property values, on which school-funding property taxes are based. The federal government infused cash into school systems for a while, but that has stopped.

“The whole quantifying thing becomes very challenging because many things are going on at the same time,” said Connerty-Marin at the Department of Education.

Residents see their taxes going up, but it’s unclear whether those taxes would have gone up anyway, or whether they might have gone up more.

David Silvernail, director of the Education Policy and Research Center at the University of Southern Maine, is using about $250,000 in state money and a $25,000 grant to do a 3-year school consolidation study. He hopes in the next month or two to analyze data from 10 schools to gauge the financial impact of consolidation’s first year. He would like to expand the project to track consolidation long term and the effects of town withdrawals, but he has run out of money.

The Maine Department of Education knows of only Silvernail studying school consolidation in Maine.

Because no one can say whether consolidation has saved money and because some town officials are so unhappy with it, it’s hard to gauge whether consolidation has been a success. Even when looking at just one school system.

The Department of Education has placed RSU 10 on a list of school consolidation achievements, noting the school system now offers more Advanced Placement courses to students and it has saved money by merging central offices, providing a day treatment program for students with special needs rather than sending them out of town and more efficiently managing transportation, maintenance and staff development.

The chairman of the RSU 10 school board also believes consolidation was the right thing, at least for his town of Buckfield.

“We made the decision before the consolidation happened, before the governor said we had to do it, that we couldn’t afford to stand alone anymore because of costs going up. We had to do something to go in with another district to make it work,” Jerry Wiley said.

He said Rumford and Dixfield’s school systems were the only ones in the area willing to partner with Buckfield.

“We kind of went all around,” he said. “They’re not the closest. It’s kind of a long continuous district up through, yet things seem to fit and fit fairly well. And they bent over backward to give us time to make the decisions.”

But he has heard discontent over taxes and the school system’s $35.1 million budget. Within town there’s been talk of withdrawal.

“I believe there were five towns that the budget didn’t pass in, but the overall budget passed,” he said. “We’ve heard that (withdrawal discussion) here, but I think it’s kind of calmed down. I hope it has.”

It may have in Buckfield, but not in Dixfield.

Holmes is determined to plow through the 22-step withdrawal process. He hopes a least a few towns will follow him.

“We’d like to go back to what was the former SAD 21,” Holmes said. “I think once they see the ball is rolling, I’m quite sure they’ll do the same thing.”

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