Editor’s note: This column by Jacquie Kahn, who works in RSU 20, was addressed to members of the RSU 20 School Board and shared with The Republican Journal.

No one said the merger of SAD 34 and SAD 56 was going to be easy, but many of us in the education field find the increased collaboration, and the challenge of positive change, stimulating and beneficial to our schools. A strong educational system is not isolated and should not stagnate. As an RSU 20 educator and parent, I have found the merger to be positive for both former districts — academically, professionally and socially.

At the March 9 RSU 20 School Board meeting I was disheartened to hear that there are still some on the school board and in the community delving to identify inequities between the two former districts instead of trying to problem-solve and build on the strengths of our schools to create a stronger RSU.

In a discussion about co-curricular activities, one board member made an analogy between programming in the different districts to one family eating steak and another eating beans. In looking at the former districts, both have strengths and weaknesses in programming and facilities; however, the implication of some board and community members at this meeting was that somehow the former SAD 56 lost out in the merger.

This is absolutely erroneous and counterproductive. This claim is polarizing our school board, schools and community, while diverting time and energy from positive problem-solving during these tough fiscal times.

The former SAD 56 has many programs and components that are stronger than their counterparts in the former SAD 34. The former SAD 56 elementary school math program (Everyday Math) is superior to the former 34’s and students at various grade levels have access to texts and manipulatives, while the former SAD 34 elementary students are using an outdated program that was purchased nearly nine years ago and teachers have to photocopy handouts for students, none of whom have textbooks. Who’s eating beans here?

As in most Maine school districts, there is a certified media specialist in the elementary school libraries of the former SAD 56 who, in addition to library management tasks, teaches the Maine Learning Results library-media curriculum in grades K-5. However, the former SAD 34 elementary schools have very minimal library instruction until middle school and one library educational technician is alone responsible for managing the libraries at all six elementary schools.

There are no Smart Boards in any former SAD 34 schools, but there are some in Searsport. The list can go on and on, but we need to end these comparisons and simply look at the strengths of each former district and try to work collaboratively, learning from each other, to make each of our schools stronger throughout our region.

There are many areas where positive collaboration has taken place since our merger, with wonderful results. For example, through the collaborative RSU 20 Extended Learning Program, the middle school math team has expanded to both middle schools, with the newly formed Searport Middle School’s seventh-grade math team taking first place at the fall and winter regional meets. Students and parents from both middle schools travel together to math meets on the same bus, getting to know each other.

SAD 34 has adopted components of the SAD 56 elementary school technology program and for the first time, there are K-5 technology lessons taught by a certified teacher on this side of the bridge, too.

It is the responsibility of leaders to bring communities together and to make well-informed decisions based on sound fiscal and educational policies. Currently, we have three elementary schools in our region — Frankfort, Nickerson [in Swanville] and Stockton Springs — with approximately 80 students in each building. Some classes at these schools are less than half the size of those in other RSU 20 elementary schools.

As our school population dwindles in some communities, our leaders need to make a potentially unpopular decision and close a school. It makes more educational sense to close a school rather than go back to the combined grade-level approach, which has been proposed by some, that we had during the one-room schoolhouse days.

In all of our elementary classrooms, teachers work hard to meet the needs of diverse students with a wide range of learning styles, academic abilities and social needs. Creating classrooms in which teachers would be responsible for two different grade-level curricula in all subject areas, in addition to expanding the range of learner needs, makes little or no sense.

In districts nationwide where multi-age classrooms are used appropriately, they are set up based not on which grade has the least amount of students, but instead on educational research as to which ages are better combined. In addition, teachers must take coursework on how to teach in multi-age classrooms and multi-age classes are often team taught by two certified teachers or with classroom aides to assist.

Community and board members rightfully brought up concerns about student travel time; however, I would think that 10 minutes more on a bus would be less detrimental to student learning if they are going to spend the day in a single-grade classroom, than if they are in multi-age classrooms created solely because of class numbers.

Another point made was that two of the three schools under consideration for closing still have debt service. This shouldn’t really factor into the decision, as debt service is in addition to operating costs and thus won’t affect the budget savings. What should be examined is which schools have classroom space for more children, lower maintenance costs and would still ensure reasonable transportation times for students.

Some community members expressed concern that if their school were closed they would no longer be able to use it for community events such as evening basketball games. In Belfast, community members must pay YMCA fees (with financial aid available) to do this and perhaps if a school closes, the town can take it over and open it for special events. The building could still be a focus for community activities, but RSU 20 wouldn’t be paying the operating expenses.

As a parent and educator, I hope our school board will set the tone for positive collaboration and progressive change to strengthen RSU 20 for the sake of our children. I hope our board members and administrators can make the tough decision to close at least one school so that our children will get the very best education within our financial means. Simply cutting teachers here and there and combining classes is a Band-aid solution that is putting off the inevitable, is not in the best interest of our children’s education and does not follow best educational practices.

We are counting on your leadership to make wise decisions for RSU 20 and our children. Best of luck to you all and thank you for serving on the RSU 20 school board of directors.

Jacquie Kahn is an RSU 20 parent and educator, working in several schools with the Extended Learning Program and also serving as the co-coach of the Math Team at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast and co-coach of the Science Olympiad at Belfast Area High School. She lives in Northport.