June 19, 2018
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There’s no easy solution for Maine’s emptying schools

Micky Bedell | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN
The sun rises on Oxbow Plantation, Nov. 8, 2016.

It’s no secret that many of Maine’s public schools have been losing students. But it can be difficult to fully understand the deep impact that declining enrollment can have on individual students and staff.

Between 2007 and 2016, about two-thirds of schools saw a net decline in their student populations, according to Maine Department of Education data. Some counties, like Aroostook, have lost as much as 17 percent of their student population in that span.

In the most rural parts of the state, like The County, schools are often the lifeblood of local communities. In addition to being the source of basic education, they are venues for athletic events, drama and musical performances, and other community gatherings.

To help struggling districts, the Department of Education has offered grants as part of the EMBRACE Initiative, which is meant to encourage school districts to come together and offer services regionally in an effort to increase efficiency.

So far, the state has awarded 10 grants, ranging from $130,000 to $798,000, to school districts so they can tackle a range of issues, including collaborations to offer special education and professional development for teachers at a regional level, instead of through individual school districts.

While regionalizing services is important, it won’t be enough to help schools that have been hardest hit by declining enrollments. That’s because, in many cases, their communities have been fundamentally changed by a shifting economy.

There is no easy answer for them, given that the odds of reversing long-term demographic trends are “limited at best,” as the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire put it in a 2006 report.

The most important thing is that community members be honest about their situation and deliberately talk about what they will, or won’t, do, economic experts said as part of a BDN Maine Focus series last year on rural Maine’s future. Having those community conversations can be difficult, but having them is essential — as is being open to a future that doesn’t involve growth.

The experience of the Madawaska School Department shows the real effects of declining school enrollments and local populations.

Madawaska Middle/High School lost 43 percent of its students between 2007 and 2016, dropping from 384 to just 230. (The town of Madawaska lost 500 people — 11 percent of its population — between 2000 and 2010.) As a result, the school district’s budget took a hit, in part because state funding is based on enrollment, forcing the district to decommission half of the 12 school buses in its fleet.

Today, the school can only afford to run four buses each day, meaning that some students have to be ready to board as early at 6:40 a.m., while others won’t make it back home after school until almost 4 p.m.

The school also lost 10 of its 26 teachers in the last decade, leading to cutbacks in course offerings across all subjects, said Gisele Dionne, the district’s superintendent.

The Madawaska School Department is sharing a $500,000 EMBRACE grant with two other northern Aroostook County school districts, which will help fund a new regional high school and career and technical education center.

It’s estimated that the project will save the districts about $900,000 over five years. The savings would help, but they won’t be enough to offset the decline in funding brought on by eroding tax bases and declining student populations.

Across Maine, schools are grappling with how to respond to declining student numbers. The choices open to them are few. No one should envy local school leaders who must navigate conversations with the public about how to best manage decline while ensuring local residents have a hand in adapting to a future with fewer schoolchildren in it.

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