October 23, 2018
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School choice costs spark turmoil in small Maine town

ROBBIE FEINBERG | MAINE PUBLIC
ROBBIE FEINBERG | MAINE PUBLIC
Alna parent Jeff Philbrick speaks at a March 6 town hearing on school choice in Alna.

For more than a century, Maine has offered its own version of “school choice” called “town tuitioning.” If a student lives in a district without a public school at a certain grade level, the town and district will pay a specific rate to send that student to the public or private school of their choice.

In one Maine town, such school choice has become a divisive issue as some residents feel their generosity is being abused.

[Maine town muzzles public comment at meetings after school choice conflict]

Alna resident Cathy Jones said her five kids have gone to just about every kind of school: public, private and home. She said those options were particularly important five years ago, when her oldest son was diagnosed with leukemia.

She said the disease and the turmoil it caused had a particularly powerful effect on her youngest son. Jones said she found a local private school, Juniper Hill, that helped him through the trauma, starting at age 3.

“He’s now 8,” she says. “He’ll be going into fourth grade there next year. And he’s now at the top of his reading class, doing really well. But we totally credit that for being able to find a place for him.”

Jones said Alna’s school-choice policy, through which the town pays upwards of $8,000 for students to attend any public or private school, has helped her family and others find the right fit for their children.

“Now we’re able to discern what our kids need, in a more judicious fashion,” she said. “Choose what programs and what schools are good fits for them and for your family.”

Nationally, private school choice has been controversial for years. About 15 states offer some kind of school voucher program. In Maine, thousands of high school students use the town tuitioning program each year, and thousands more go to other districts through agreements approved by superintendents.

But only a select few towns, including Alna, allow this choice at the elementary level, too. It was part of an agreement with nearby Wiscasset negotiated nearly two decades ago, when there were fewer private schools in the area.

Most students continued attending public schools. But in recent years, that’s changed. This year, more K-12 students in Alna are attending private schools rather than public schools, and some feel it has changed the town.

“I felt like we were being treated as a checkbook as opposed to a place to live,” Alna Selectman Doug Baston said. “So that’s when it started to draw concern with me.”

Baston said that since 2010, he has heard from people wanting to move to town as a way to get their child’s private school tuition subsidized.

“I’m a jogger,” he said. “So people would stop me — I think this happened three times — along the side of the highway, and say, ‘Excuse me, we’re looking for a house to rent here because we’d like to send our kid to XYZ private school.’ And it was more, at that point, less of a fiscal issue than kind of an irritant.”

But Baston said he has seen landlords and realtors list Alna properties with “school choice” advertised prominently. And he says local officials have investigated about half a dozen incidents of people who claimed to live in Alna for the private school tuition — though school officials acknowledge residency is an issue in many districts, not just Alna.

Baston said he worries school enrollment could keep climbing, triggering even higher property taxes, which he said are already a burden for many older residents.

“When you’re a selectman, you sit where you see the whole population,” Baston said. “Not just slices of the population. And those people concern me deeply.”

These issues led one resident to launch a petition last year to discontinue private elementary school choice policies for future Alna residents. Tensions ran high this week when the issue was brought for a public hearing.

Dozens of residents packed Alna’s fire station Monday night. Some were older and concerned about taxes, including one worried they may need to leave town in the future because of high property taxes.

But many parents defended school choice and said it gave them control of their families’ education. Some residents also describe a “toxic atmosphere” in town, of neighbors spying on one another to see if they actually live in Alna.

Some, including resident Stacey Rees, said they felt that they hadn’t been heard by their town government or respected throughout the petition process.

“It seems though, that the only ones left out of this careful preparation, are the citizens of Alna. Those in favor of the change. As well as those opposed,” she said.

An upcoming vote is just the first step toward actually changing Alna’s school policy. Regional School Unit 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle said if the petition is approved, he thinks it will still need to go to the regional school board and then would need to be voted on again.

“If, ultimately, the RSU 12 board does want to make that change — and I don’t know if they even can — then there’d have to be a referendum of the entire district, is my understanding,” he said.

That means the private school choice debate in Alna may not be settled anytime soon.

This report appears through a media partnership with Maine Public. Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

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