ELLSWORTH, Maine — A series of public hearings will be held this week and next in Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine over the issue of whether or not those communities should withdraw from Regional School Unit 24.
The three communities will vote to stay in or pull out of the school unit on Nov. 5, ending a contentious process that has unfolded over the course of more than a year.
The issue at hand is whether or not these communities can function better on their own or as members of the RSU, which in the 2009-2010 school year began serving Ellsworth and 11 towns to the north and east of the city.
Regional school units, a legacy of Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, were created by joining smaller school districts so that each unit had a target enrollment of at least 2,500 students. The purpose was, in part, to save money by creating fewer administrative offices, thereby cutting administrative costs.
Superintendent Suzanne Lukas says that’s what has happened. She points to the fact that the RSU is spending $1.61 million less this school year than the combined 12 communities spent during the year before consolidation.
Many Ellsworth residents say they are not feeling the effects of those savings.
Ellsworth taxpayers’ contribution to education has gone up over $3 million since the RSU was formed, according to numbers provided by Ellsworth’s finance director, Tammy Mote. Some of that increase can be attributed to the fact that aid from the state has gone down and Ellsworth’s taxes in general have gone up.
“Both sides have presented some interesting data,” said John Moore, a city council member who also is a retired teacher. “But they have different ways of presenting the budget data.”
While taxes are an issue, both sides say that the real question is about who can and should provide quality education for students.
“What does common sense tell you? That bigger is better? Hardly. A small school board, exercising local control over its own town, leads to quality education and builds a fine, proud community,” said Anne Dale, a retired teacher who has attended the withdrawal committee’s weekly meetings.
Gordon Donaldson, a University of Maine professor of education and resident of Lamoine who has been involved in the withdrawal process there, said that in Maine towns, local control is key.
“The solution to poor achievement, particularly in poor neighborhoods, is to get parents involved,” he said. “When you set up these big districts, you take participation away from the neighborhood.”
Before the RSU, each community had its own school board. Now, there is one 14-member school board that makes decisions about the schools for all 12 communities. Ellsworth has three seats on the board and each of the other 11 towns are represented by one member.
Brenda Thomas, a teacher with a 35-year-long career who is now retired, said that under the RSU, parents aren’t attending school board meetings as much as they used to.
But, proponents of the RSU say that savings that have come as a result of the RSU translate into more student learning.
“Joining has afforded us opportunities to do professional development and training of teachers,” Lukas said. She added that four years in an RSU “was not enough time for this to gel.”
Ellsworth residents can see Mark Rosborough, chair of the Ellsworth RSU 24 withdrawal committee, and Lukas each present their side of the issue at an Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce session at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, at City Hall.
The session is open to the public, but those who wish to attend are asked to R.S.V.P by calling 667-5584 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The withdrawal committees in each community also must set up a public hearing beforehand to allow public discussion on the issue.
Hancock’s public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, at Hancock Grammar School.
Ellsworth’s hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, in the City Council Chambers.
Lamoine’s hearing also will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24. That meeting will be at the Lamoine Consolidated School.
RSU 24 also has organized public hearings in each of the three communities.
Hancock’s will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28, in the Hancock Grammar School.
Ellsworth’s will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, in the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School.
And Lamoine’s will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, in the Lamoine Consolidated School.