ELLSWORTH, Maine — Five communities will vote on whether to withdraw from their regional school units on Election Day. The decisions will likely end processes that have gone on for at least a year — and in some cases two — in those cities and towns and left parents unsure about the future of their children’s schools.
Regional school units were formed five years ago under Gov. John Baldacci’s administration as a way to make school districts more efficient and cut costs. They were mandated by a 2007 law that was intended to turn Maine’s 290 districts into about 80, thereby consolidating smaller school administrative units and reducing the number of administrative offices and staff.
The change was meant to be quick and districts that did not comply would face financial penalties. That’s where, some say, the plan went wrong.
“The overwhelming consensus was that the approach of a mandate with penalties, short time frame, and poor articulation all produced a negative reaction against the policy and led to efforts to repeal or revise the law,” states a University of Maine study that observed the consolidation process over the first two years in 15 regional school units across the state.
Two and a half years into the plan, communities were given the option to withdraw from the RSUs.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine will vote on whether to withdraw from RSU 24, Wiscasset voters may choose to withdraw from RSU 12, and Saco voters may vote to withdraw from RSU 23. Saco’s district will face another vote on Nov. 19, when Dayton voters decide whether to withdraw.
The debate over whether to revert to independent school districts or remain in consolidated districts has pitted the merits of creating more uniform standards across the state against local control. For some, this is a discussion of old versus new.
“Five years ago they were able to manage their own education system,” said acting education commissioner Jim Rier, referring to the communities seeking withdrawal. “They feel they should be able to do it again. That remains to be seen, because absolutely nothing is the same as it was five years ago.”
Part of what’s changed is that some school districts have seen a significant reduction in the amount of aid they get from the state. The 12 communities in RSU 24, for example, got $7.1 million in state subsidies for education for the 2008-2009 school year. This year, the RSU received $3.8 million.
Another change is that in 2011, Maine updated its expectations for students to align with the Common Core, a set of standards that have been adopted by 45 states. The new standards put more of an emphasis on complicated skills, such as critical thinking and real world problem solving. Students who are currently in eighth grade will not be able to graduate in Maine without demonstrating that they can meet the standards.
“When you start thinking about what you need to have in place to improve outcomes, and not stick with the status quo, you have to get into the idea of professionals working together,” said RSU 23 superintendent Patrick Phillips.
“That’s a lot of work and it’s really hard to do that work effectively when you’ve got small school districts working in isolation.”
However, advocates of withdrawal say that consolidating small school districts into larger ones has resulted in less communication between the community and the school board and administrators, which they say hurts students.
“The solution to poor achievement, particularly in poor neighborhoods, is to get parents involved,” said Gordon Donaldson, professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine and a resident of Lamoine. “When you set up these big districts you take participation away from the neighborhood.”
RSU 24’s school board is made up of 14 members, with three from Ellsworth (though one seat is vacant), and one from each of the other 11 towns.
Donaldson said that under the old system, when the school board was made up of residents from one’s own town, “a person could go and their neighbors would be on the school committee and they would struggle with the issues together.”
The debate has not been entirely about the quality of students’ education.
“It’s been about money,” said Phillips.
There’s no consensus as to whether or not consolidation has been cost efficient. RSU 24 superintendent Suzanne Lukas said her district has saved money by reducing administrative staff and purchasing in bulk on food and school supplies. However, residents in the 12 member communities have seen their taxes for education go up consistently over the last five years.
One concern about taxes harps back to the debate over local control.
“Our tax dollars that we’ve raised have gone to other communities,” contended Mark Rosborough, chairman of Ellsworth’s withdrawal committee.
Phillips said that Saco residents have a similar concern.
There are 330 communities that are currently in RSUs, so the majority have not made an attempt to budge from the current arrangement.
Those that have, tend to be in more rural districts, said Joseph Capelluti, an education professor at the University of Southern Maine.
“The design was originally flawed because it attacked the rural schools,” he said. “You had to have an exact number of students, if you already had that number of students you didn’t have to consolidate.”
Larger, urban districts remained largely intact.
Nine communities already have voted to withdraw from their RSUs, though two of those joined other RSUs.
Eighteen communities are somewhere in the withdrawal process right now. That includes the towns of Belfast, Belmont, Northport, Swanville, Morrill and Searsmont, where an attempt to withdraw as a unit from RSU 20 failed in June. Residents of those communities are planning to try it again.
The five communities that are voting on Tuesday will need 50 percent or more of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election to turn out for the vote to count. If they withdraw, they will have to elect a new school board, who would then approve a budget in time for the 2014-2015 school year.
“The fact that we are spending years on this issue is not a happy chapter in Maine’s history,” Phillips said. “It’s a waste of time.”