Gray Matters – Divided by a river, and perception
As part of my work at The Journal, I covered board meetings of the former School Administrative Districts 56 and 34, and since those districts came together in 2009, I now cover Regional School Unit 20.
But today I write as a parent of a young child who attends school in RSU 20, and not the reporter who is charged with sitting in on meetings and documenting what occurs there.
As reporters, we are conditioned to keep our opinions to ourselves and always hold tight to the “just-the-facts-ma'am” mentality. It's not always easy to do, but it's necessary in order to do the best job you can do in terms of keeping the public informed about what is happening in their community.
But sitting here with my reporter hat off and my mom cap secured tightly on my noggin, I will say that if I could afford to do so, I would seriously consider pulling my eight-year-old son out of this school district in favor of a private school.
Is it because of the programs? Do I dislike the teachers and support staff? Do I disagree with the decisions made by those who are charged with operating this district? Would I rather see the districts return to their former makeups as SAD 34 and 56 (with the marked absence of Frankfort)? Would I prefer to see Belfast become its own stand-alone district?
The answer to all of those questions is no.
My issue with the district has to do with the attitudes some of the adults appear to have toward one another depending on what side of the Passagassawakeag River on which they happen to reside.
I think that school of thought has always existed to some degree. When the former SAD 34 was operational, I remember hearing some residents of outlying towns complain that because Belfast was the larger community, Belfast got its way with all things school related. In the former SAD 56, I'd hear that kind of talk from those who felt Frankfort and Stockton Springs got he shorter end of the stick.
Feelings of inequity have always been present, but I think the combination of the forced consolidation, talks of school closures and the eventual effort on the part of former SAD 34 towns to withdraw really grew those feelings to a level that has become unbearable.
In an email to The Republican Journal sent before the June referendum vote, Belfast withdrawal committee vice chair Steve Hutchings, who is also a teacher at Belfast Area High School, said his fear, and that of many others, is that RSU 20 would be forced combine schools. He continued his comment by stating that he believed combining schools would create an issue in the schools.
"It would truly be a mess with 160 kids that didn't want to be here greeted by 520 kids that don't want them here," he wrote.
I was really sad to see this comment in a co-worker's story, which was published just prior to the first withdrawal vote back in June. And sadly, that is not the only comment of that nature I have heard uttered in public, on Facebook comment threads and on the comment boards for news websites like ours.
Since that kind of commentary has become more common, I have heard some other things in response that I find disturbing. One resident of Stockton Springs told me she no longer shops in Belfast because she doesn't feel welcome here. Even if that feeling is based largely on a perception, I find that unacceptable.
I've heard some who support the latest withdrawal effort say it is important to maintain the culture that is unique to Belfast schools — my response to that is, why are these schools so very different? Aside from the difference in the way the staff at each high school instructs students, do both schools not produce graduates we can all be proud of? Do both schools not have exceptional teachers and staff that do what they do because they care about our kids?
The only thing, in my mind, that keeps this district divided — besides the river — are the attitudes that perpetuate these hard feelings. My suggestion, for what it's worth, is this: Let's start looking at ways we can benefit by working together instead of finding new reasons to stand divided.
When my son, who attends the Nickerson School in Swanville, goes to play with one of his cousins, who have attended Searsport area schools, do you think he will stop that activity when he learns where they go to school?
Nope. And neither will his cousins. They just want to hang out and talk about airplanes and remote control cars.
But as long as the adults continue to allow this divisiveness to continue, I fear these feelings will eventually trickle down to the kids. And that's something I am not willing to sit silently by and accept.
If I believe positive change can happen in this RSU, no matter what the makeup of the district is after the withdrawal votes are done an over with, I will hold onto the hope that there are others here who want to work for it too.
After all, it's not about us as the adults. It is, and always should be, about what's best for all of the kids — including mine.