Residents in Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine want to withdraw from Regional School Unit 24, the 12-town megadistrict formed in 2009 in Hancock County. It’s about time. On Nov. 5, voters in all three communities will decide the issue. A “yes” vote will free the towns to determine their own school futures and budgets.
RSU 24 began when fewer than 6 percent of the region’s registered voters said “yes” to the idea in December 2008 — when fewer than 10 percent of the region’s registered voters turned out to cast a ballot. Suzanne Lukas, superintendent of RSU 24, quite rightly described the district as a “shotgun wedding” in the March 22, 2012, edition of the Ellsworth American. Since then, efforts to make the wedding into a healthy marriage have come up short, just as they have in more than 40 other Maine communities.
Consolidated districts were supposed to reduce management costs. RSU 24 has more managers and support staff than the three districts it replaced. RSU records show that pay and benefits for 15 of those managers comes to about $1.3 million — 3.6 percent of the RSU’s total budget. With overhead, the new bureaucracy costs upwards of $2.3 million (6.2 percent of the budget).
The RSU was supposed to trim costs from supposedly wasteful smaller districts. The cost to local taxpayers — excluding state funds and state-paid debt service — to run RSU 24 actually increased by 7.2 percent per year over the first four years, according to the district’s budget documents. During this span, local and state spending on public schools declined statewide. Maine Department of Education data show that RSU 24’s spending was higher than the state average for administration, transportation, special services to staff and students, and special education.
RSU 24 has diverted funds from regular classroom instruction to other purposes, undercutting the quality of learning in our schools. Compared with spending in the 12 towns in the four years before the RSU, RSU 24 spent an average of $550 per student less for regular classroom instruction in the first three years, according to the Maine Department of Education. Where did this money go? The RSU spent almost $350 more per student for services to staff and students such as extracurricular activities and curriculum coordination, almost $200 per student more for special education and almost $80 per student more for facilities and maintenance.
This shotgun wedding has failed in more ways than financially. Residents and educators throughout the district no longer feel ownership in their schools. As early as November 2009, a majority of RSU voters supported repeal of the consolidation law. The RSU 24 board of directors and administration are unknown to parents and residents, even though they now determine the budget, hire all staff, choose curriculum and lunch menus, and decide which schools receive improved equipment.
The “public,” it seems, has no place in our public education system any more.
This estrangement of communities from their schools is devastating. Research demonstrates again and again that children learn best when their parents share responsibility with teachers for their success and when the community feels responsible for their own schools. In Hancock, Lamoine and Ellsworth, residents and educators accept responsibility for their children and school. The RSU’s corporate attitude and sheer size have driven a wedge between our schools and the communities they serve.
The shotgun wedding has gone on long enough. The challenges of improving learning for every child are immense to start with. RSU 24 employees have worked hard to make the marriage work, but the huge geographic area and lack of vision and consistent leadership have crippled those efforts. The RSU had three superintendents in its first three years. Its two high schools, according to state assessments, are struggling to succeed with all students. It has spawned three new employee unions, forcing it to put time and energy into negotiating contracts instead of educational improvement.
Hard as RSU staff have tried, this megadistrict is simply too unwieldy to give teachers the professional support they need and to engage parents as they must be engaged.
It’s time to give the schools back to our towns. It’s time to be sensible about the size of our school districts and to ensure, again, that they are working for us, not vice versa. On Nov. 5, residents in Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine can take a stand for our children, families and communities. By voting “yes” for withdrawal from RSU 24, Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine can choose a healthy educational marriage — one that can be both financially efficient and good for every student and family.
Gordon Donaldson of Lamoine is professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine. RSU 24 encompasses Eastbrook, Ellsworth, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor.