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School Consolidation: 5 Maine Communities to Vote on Leaving RSUs
11/01/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Five more communities in Maine will vote Tuesday on whether to withdraw from their regional school districts or RSUs. So far, 22 of the 24 RSUs - formed to comply with the state's school consolidation law - have had some member towns express interest in pulling out. Nine communities have successfully done so. The withdrawal efforts highlight some of the flaws in the way Maine went about consolidating school districts. As Jay Field reports, they're also forcing towns and cities to make tough choices about retaking local control of education at a time of scarce financial resources and growing demands on students and teachers.

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One of those cities is Ellsworth, where there's plenty of evidence that a big vote is coming on Tuesday. "Take Back Our Schools!" "Vote Yes on Question 1," screams the banner high in the air over Main St.

More than a year ago, Ellsworth residents directed the city to draw up a plan to withdraw from RSU 24, which is made up of a dozen communities that joined together four years ago. At a recent public hearing, Suzanne Lukas was one of the few people to argue that leaving the district is a really bad idea.

"Whether or not we should remain consolidated as a school district should stand on the merits of the kinds of things that are happening for children in the schools," says Lukas, the superintendent in RSU 24. "It should rest on how we are managing taxpayer resources in order to accomplish that task."

RSU 24, Lukas argues, is doing a good job in both areas - for Ellsworth, and all it's other member communities. The district has eliminated eight central office positions, cut special education and student transportation costs and used an "economies of scale" purchasing model that's fueled over $9 million in savings since 2009.

Students in grades 6-12 enjoy one-to-one technology. All elementary school classrooms have laptops. And Lukas says students are entering Ellsworth High School more prepared to succeed in work or post-secondary education.

"On the state and national level, the quality of education is rated by how kids do on test scores. Now, I don't agree with that wholeheartedly. But it is one indicator," she says. "So what I have here in front of you are the trajectory of scores on the SAT for Ellsworth High School. Our kids are performing higher now than they were at the start of the RSU."

The large number of withdrawal supporters listened to Lucas's presentation, politely, then got up, one by one, and told a completely different story about consolidation and its impact on Ellsworth and the city's public schools. As property values have gone up in Ellsworth, the city's share of state funding for education has gone down, leaving local property owners to make up the difference.

"Our taxes have gone up just sub of $7 million," said Mark Rosborough. "So if we've had to come up with an additional seven and they've saved nine and a half, where did that seven go?"

It went into a district-wide pool, said Rosborough, where it's spent in schools that aren't in Ellsworth. Rosborough is one of the leaders of the withdrawal effort.

"If we get out of the RSU, those taxes then stay in Ellsworth," Rosborough said. "And that local school board can make the decision as to how those dollars are spent to improve the quality of education in our schools. We're not having it determined by a 14-member board, which we've got three members on."

Other speakers noted that teacher morale inside Ellsworth schools, especially the high school, has plummeted since consolidation took effect. And enrollment continues to decline, factors that withdrawal supporters say are indicative of problems with teaching and learning.

"By and large, school districts in Maine did not want to be forced to consolidate," says Janet Fairman. Fairman, an associate research professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine at Orono, has studied the initial effects of consolidation on districts across the state.

"Changing, moving from that perception of that local control to a regional perspective - that we are now in this together, we are going to be concerned about the welfare of students in other communities - that's a very difficult shift," Fairman says.

Two other towns in RSU 24, Lamoine and Hancock, will also vote on withdrawal questions on Tuesday. And more towns across the state are lining up to hold votes next year.



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