Think tank talks options for reorganizing RSU 20
Belfast — Representatives from seven of the eights towns in Regional School Unit 20 met in Belfast City Hall to discuss what is and is not working in the district, as well as the potential impact of withdrawal and consolidation.
Billed as a think tank with the purpose of discussing education in RSU 20, specifically in regards to withdrawal and consolidation efforts, the group spent nearly three hours Thursday, Dec. 12, speaking about the state of the district and in what directions the consolidation and withdrawal efforts could head.
Serving as representatives on the board during Thursday’s meeting were Morrill Selectman Randy Place; Belfast withdrawal committee and Planning Board member Wayne Corey; Belmont resident and parent Gene Newton; Belfast resident and retired educator Larry Theye; Northport resident and parent Sandy Wallace; former superintendent and Searsmont withdrawal committee chair Carol Robbins; former superintendent and Swanville resident Bruce Mailloux; Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley; and Stockton Springs resident Jeff Davis.
Searsport Town Manager James Gillway was invited to the meeting but was unable to attend due to a prior commitment, according to Belfast attorney Kristin Collins.
After brief introductions from each of the think tank members, the group tackled the evening’s agenda, which addressed the performance of RSU 20; the long-term educational needs of the region –– population growth/reduction, student/teacher ratios, needs for additional programs, lack of need for any current programs and perceived cultural differences between the schools and faculties; and how the district can integrate.
Long-term goals for RSU 20
The group also addressed the long-term goals for the district if it remains intact; how current consolidation proposals will affect each community; how current withdrawal movements will affect each community; other options for educational structures that might benefit each community; and ideas for reducing the cost of education while ensuring the quality of the education.
Speaking to the issue of the district’s performance, the cost of operating the district came under scrutiny as several members referenced rising educational expenses despite enrollment declines and projections that student population will continue to decline in future years.
Mailloux commented that he felt the schools were performing well, but uncertainty about the future of the district in terms of whether schools will be closed and positions cut is affecting the morale of district staff.
He also noted that while the district is being attacked for tax increases, the budget has increased only slightly over the years and the larger tax hikes are due to a lack of state funding.
Theye said he is philosophically supportive of consolidation, but so far the district has yet to truly consolidate in terms of combining schools. He suggested combining Belfast Area High School and Searsport High School.
Discussion on the topic ended after Place stated that one of the positives of the merger was that students were sheltered from the controversy of SAD 34 and SAD 56 joining, and commented that there needs to be more give and take within the district.
When discussing the long-term educational needs of the district, Robbins addressed concerns about ensuring the Waldo County Technical Center is accessible to all students. She said if a student wants to attend a class or classes at the facility, they should be able do so.
Wallace suggested students should have access to a foreign language course before they are in high school.
Other suggestions included evaluating existing programs in the district to determine if they could be improved and whether any should be eliminated and addressing low enrollments in the schools.
During discussion, the members of the think tank took exception to the term “cultural differences” within the district. While addressing the term, Mailloux acknowledge there different philosophies in terms of how students are educated at BAHS and how they are educated at SHS, specifically referencing the fact that SHS employs a standards-based approach.
Davis agreed that there aren’t any cultural differences between the SAD 34 towns and the SAD 56 towns, noting “the river is not the boundary in the district,” before suggesting the best way to integrate RSU 20 is to create a regional high school.
Think tank member Theye also commented that all of the schools will have to transition to a standards-based education.
Newton agreed there aren’t any cultural differences in the district; there are only different philosophies in terms of teaching methods.
As discussion continued, Robbins suggested the district should adopt a strategic plan that would establish a clear vision for achieving goals related to student achievement. She said it would also be beneficial to establish a policy that would cap how much time a student would spend on the bus each day; noting that longer bus rides can impact a student’s academic performance.
Wallace then stated she would like to see better communication among the RSU 20 board members, which prompted a comment from Collins that the think tank could discuss a restructuring of the existing school board structure.
Collins’ suggestion was later addressed by Mailloux who said he would prefer a school board that has fewer than 18 members. However, he explained, an 18-member board is the smallest group the district can legally establish under current laws.
“It’s an unmanageable group, I think, quite frankly,” Mailloux said of the current school board structure.
Mailloux further explained that during his tenure as superintendent, the district struggled with filling all of the available seats on the board.
He then stated that while there could be savings associated with closing buildings, if the district is then able to get rid of those buildings, the true savings would be found in the salaries and benefits of the staff.
Place then asked if it would be possible to realize significant savings by eliminating programs. Mailloux replied that while it could be possible to find savings through the elimination of programs, the effort would most likely be met by resistance from the public.
Impact of consolidation and withdrawal on communities
Members of the think tank were asked by Collins to discuss how consolidation and withdrawal would impact their towns. In some cases, such as with Stockton Springs, there is not a withdrawal effort and the town's school had already been closed.
Theye said he believed that a Belfast stand-alone district would benefit residents in the city financially, but those benefits would come at the expense of the surrounding communities. Newton responded to Theye's assessment of a stand-alone district in Belfast by commenting he felt it would be very difficult for the city to negotiate with the RSU 20 school board to acquire the buildings.
Mailloux agreed with Newton in regards to the school board relinquishing buildings to Belfast if it were to pursue a stand-alone option, and stated he didn't believe his town would be eager to give back the buildings since taxpayers throughout the district have invested a considerable amount of money into the facilities.
In Northport, Wallace said the withdrawal committee is looking at a structure similar to Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville, where the three towns run their own elementary and middle school, and then students attend a regional high school.
Robbins noted that while the proposed consolidation proposals wouldn't close a school in Searsmont, she did question the capacity of the facility and whether it could absorb a student population from another town such as Morrill.
She also commented that withdrawal could benefit Searsmont by ensuring students are not traveling on a bus any farther than Belfast.
Speaking to the impact of consolidation on Morrill and Swanville respectively, Place and Mailloux noted neither of their towns was in a position where it could withdraw on its own. Mailloux stated even if withdrawal occurs, there is a chance Kermit Nickerson Elementary could still be closed, and personally, he doubted the town would vote to pick up the additional cost of keeping the building open.
During a brainstorming session for possible options for how the district could be organized, members of the think tank discussed a number of possible structures.
One suggestion was to give each of the towns in the district the option of running its own kindergarten through fifth grade or kindergarten through eighth grade program and then send students to a regional high school.
Other suggestions included looking at the current structure of the district and finding ways to fill the schools in the most efficient manner possible; creating a facilities master plan; and submitting an application to the state for funding to build a new regional high school.
“If we're going to stay together we need to be together,” Davis said.
The meeting ended with comments from a few members of the public and current Belfast school board representatives. The think tank was encouraged to have more meetings in the future, and to give more consideration to the towns managing their own elementary school programs.
Belfast school board members Alan Wood, Charles Grey and Christopher Hyk offered their thoughts on the meeting. Wood said he appreciated getting more perspective on the challenges the district is facing and encouraged the group to meet again.
Grey pointed out that much of the evening's discussion centered on issues related to state funding, and yet none of the people who represent the RSU 20 towns in Augusta attended the think tank meeting.
Hyk concluded discussion with a comment that he felt the district was too “top heavy” in terms of senior staff and their large salaries. To address the issue, Hyk said some consideration could be given to creating an incentive for senior staff members to retire, which would in turn allow the district to hire younger teachers at a much lower cost.
Before the meeting adjourned shortly before 9 p.m., Collins said she would contact members of the think tank to meet again sometime in January.
Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.
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