Save RSU 20
I am a retired resident of Searsport with reasonable intelligence and a history of deep involvement in education in Waldo County. I speak from experience as a director of Head Start, as a teacher and principal in public school classrooms K-12, as a member of the administrative team of two school districts, and as adjunct faculty in the community college system. I began my education in Maine as a fifth grader, in a one-room schoolhouse in center Montville. I eventually earned three degrees from the University of Maine. I am thankful every day that the adults in charge thought more about educating my generation than they did their own personal pocketbooks or worse yet provincial vendettas. Now it is our turn.
When RSU 20 was formed it was not much different than a “shot-gun wedding” — the state, holding the trigger, threatened us and all residents of the state. We would be fined beyond reason if we did not vote to form new collaborations to educate our children. Like many threats, that one never happened either, but that does not help our current situation.
When RSU 20 was created, thinking citizens saw both sides of the situation. Many saw both the pitfalls and the possibilities presented by the larger consolidation. Greater geographical areas, strengths in some programs and inequalities in others all were part of this new marriage. Some approached this challenge with a positive attitude, got down to work looking for and supporting ways to make this “shot-gun wedding” work. Unfortunately too many others have worked from the beginning to sabotage any efforts to work together for the educational good of all of the students. Too many of the louder and more strident voices have only an interest in their own pocketbooks or positions and show little concern for the next generations.
When presented with the petition to add Searsport to the list of towns seeking to withdraw from RSU 20, I refused to sign it. I do not feel that a withdrawal effort by any town is the way to go. There are too many possibilities for the future education of all of the students to throw in the towel. The money being spent on multiple budget meetings, withdrawal meetings and votes would go a long way to meeting the increasing costs of providing a good education for all students. Adding these costs to our tax bills has never been questioned. The economics as reported for supporting the current schools are at best questionable. However, money alone should never be the deciding factor when making decisions about the education of our children.
Granted, the costs of educating our children have grown exponentially since our own four children stood as proud graduates of Searsport District High School. The education our granddaughters received at Belfast Area High 30 years later certainly cost more. We have to accept the fact that everything costs more every day. Using the costs of supporting education as a reason for making the changes that are now being suggested — and I might add, without a gun to our collective heads — is wrong thinking and counter productive to the reason for public schools. Schools exist so that our young people can be prepared to join the ranks of our past graduates and pursue their own career choices into the fields of military service, medicine, local garages, retail stores and yes, even into the ranks of those employed by the very school system some seek to destroy.
How can we best accomplish this goal, you ask. First and foremost we must have a common will to keep our eye on the reason for public schools and there is only one: to educate children. Saving money, pleasing narrow-minded people with self-serving interests, preserving provincial attitudes all need to go out the window. We need, as an RSU, to sit down with the goal of educating all of the children and take a hard look at how we can preserve what is working well and an equally hard look at what is not. We need to look at where standards are being met and where progress is lacking. We need to look at the population distribution without attention to town lines and send elementary children to the nearest school building. We need to look at the population of middle and high school age students and envision ways to meet the needs of students at this next step in their education.
It is not necessary to incur further bonded indebtedness to build a Taj Mahal school and have all 6-12 students in the same place. I believe this can be accomplished by treating the existing middle and high school buildings as centers for educational excellence focusing on specific areas, magnet schools, if you will, where in Searsport staff can focus on math and science strong curricula and Belfast can become an exemplary school for students whose strengths and interests lie in the areas of the arts, music, writing and performing.
The model is in place. Our students from both sides of the river have been able to elect career paths of their choice for more than 40 years as they traveled to Waldo Regional Vocational Center. The scenario as I outline would solve some problems, and of course create other, not insurmountable issues. The newly renovated state-of-the-art school at Searsport could be better utilized, while the overcrowded situation at Belfast that requires children to eat lunch at mid-morning could be eased. Teachers with like fields of expertise could work collegially and both the staff and the students would benefit. Classes of less than five students will become a past memory. Students from both side of the bridge could be given opportunities to prepare early for career choices. Students from throughout the RSU could take advantage of marine science and boat building offered in Searsport and prepare for careers in the new shipyard on their doorstep. Students interested in agriculture could take advantage of the exemplary agriculture based programs long established at Troy Howard. This is a program that could well be expanded to prepare students to meet a pressing need to feed us in the years to come. If we have space left over when program needs are met, then let’s rent space to small business entrepreneurs and further increase the exposure of our students to the world of work.
I am sure that sports are a major stumbling block. There are few who enjoy sports more than I. The Maine Principals Association sees no problem with teams traveling mega miles to play in leagues they deem best. I see real possibilities for students to join together as an RSU, consolidate team offerings and allow more students to participate in basketball, football, swimming, track or soccer at various levels. This might even convince the MPA that Waldo County students do not need to travel 2-3 hours at night to play far distant games. The costs of these very important activities for many students could be better contained, and perhaps this would leave money to support activities for those students for whom a team sport is not a first choice for recreation and leisure time.
I am elated that our RSU School Board has voted to place future planning on the table for the moment. I believe there are many good minds on this board, some young and some veterans of the political arena. My sincere hope is that town lines can be forgotten and that new Bridges — yes with a capital B — can be built that will be a path for our children to the excellent educational opportunities they deserve. I will put whatever part of my retirement funds are necessary to pay my taxes. I urge others, both the vocal retirees and those still struggling to make a living to begin to think along these lines. Perhaps we have to eat out less often, forego an occasional movie or buy fewer weekly lottery tickets. When our school board devises a plan for excellence, let’s get behind them, support their efforts and pay the bill so that our children get the education you and I got and that this next generation deserves.