“There are more changes going on in public education right now than there have been in the last 40 or 50 years.”

That is how Regional School Unit 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux described the ongoing movement for change, both within the nine towns that make up RSU 20 on up through the state and national level.

“It’s an exciting time in education right now, and it’s also a frustrating time,” Mailloux said during an interview Monday, Dec. 5.

‘Johnny’s’ struggle

The excitement, Mailloux said, comes from many new initiatives that Maine schools are currently working to implement.

One big change on the horizon is the use of Common Core Standards, which the Maine Department of Education released for the Pine Tree State in June 2010. According to information posted on the DOE website, the initiative is intended to help Maine teachers “identify the skills and knowledge that students should have when they graduate from high school, and benchmark the development of those knowledge- and skill-sets either grade-by-grade, or over the course of a grade span.”

The goal of using these benchmarks in Maine classrooms is intended to “ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in post-secondary education (college, technical training, etc.) and the workforce.”

Mailloux offered the example of an average student who he called “Johnny,” a high-school-aged youth who struggles with math but continues to complete homework assignments, shows up every day and asks for help when he doesn’t understand the lesson.

What has occurred for many years under the current system, said Mailloux, is that a teacher would likely give “Johnny” a grade that reflects his lack of understanding but still allows him to pass the class and move on to the next level of math instruction.

“The question is, did we really do him any favors?” said Mailloux.

Because many skill sets taught in the public school system often serve as the foundation for one’s ability to understand more complex topics later on, Mailloux said the establishment of an expectation that students demonstrate what they’ve learned is “huge.”

“Everyone has weaknesses,” said Mailloux. “But this way, it will then be incumbent on the school districts to find ways to help those students.”

That help could come in the form of one-on-one time with their teachers before or after school, Mailloux said, or during lunch or study halls.

Mailloux said he hopes the changes to come will make a difference for all kids like “Johnny,” who may view their own capabilities in a more positive way if they could only experience the moment when a concept that once seemed impossible to comprehend suddenly makes sense.

David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the state Department of Education, said in a separate interview the use of the Common Core Standards is also expected to provide the state with meaningful data that can be used to improve the performance of Maine’s students.

“We’ll be able to see how we’re doing compared to other states, and that’s going to be valuable,” he said.

The standards-based style of assessing student performance is not new in Maine, Connerty-Marin said, as the state has been moving in that direction since it first implemented similar assessment methods in 1997. The difference with the Common Core Standards, Connerty-Marin said, is that the expectations for students are slightly higher in that they must demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios.

“We need our students to meet rigorous standards, to be able to think, problem-solve and work collaboratively,” said Connerty-Marin. “Our previous assessments have not been able to measure that.”

And the changes are coming relatively fast — by 2014, Connerty-Marin said, schools in all 30 participating states will utilize a new assessment system designed through the Smarter Balanced Coalition to measure student performance.

Connerty-Marin said the new assessment system, once it is completely implemented, will allow school districts to follow student growth over time. It will also give the department a way to see the progress of schools in various part of the state, and compare performance of schools that serve families in varying socioeconomic situations.

There will also be more consistency in the resulting data that will come from the 30 states that have opted to use them, Connerty-Marin said.

“The point of all of this is not to be able to say, ‘Alabama’s doing terribly, Maine’s in the middle and Massachusetts is at the top;’ it’s so we can see how we’re doing and make improvements,” he said.

Past, present and future

Looking at the way the local economy has changed locally in recent decades, Mailloux said, improving the way instruction is approached and assessed could not come at a better time.

“What our students today need when they walk out these doors at the end of their senior year has evolved,” he said. “It’s very different than what it was, even just a few years ago.”

When seniors graduated 35 years ago, Mailloux said, there were many jobs available at local shoe factories, poultry plants, Stinson Seafood Company, Mathews Brothers, and Penobscot Frozen Foods (now operating as Penobscot McCrum).

There were always full-time jobs with good pay and benefits available to youths who wanted to work right out of high school. Those jobs, said Mailloux, provided workers with enough income to buy a home, raise a family and take an occasional vacation.

But many of those employers, with the exceptions of Mathews Brothers and the potato processing plant, are history. Mailloux said many of today’s jobs, and those of the future, will require some kind of college education or trade school training.

To get there and succeed, students must take personal responsibility for their own destinies. Hopefully, Mailloux said, some of the changes coming to public education will help build that drive in students.

“Students will need to be more proactive, advocate for themselves and then go out there and get what they want,” said Mailloux.

The key, he said, is to expose students to a variety of careers so that they become hooked on something. Then it’s a matter of pointing them in the right direction.

Sometimes a student needs to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to succeed in college, Mailloux said, and that outlook improves after taking a few courses at the Hutchinson Center. Others may worry about the cost of college, but Mailloux said the key for those youths is to keep their eye on the prize and be willing to make some financial sacrifices in the short term.

“You find a way,” he said.

Parting ways

Since Regional School Unit 20 was officially formed in July 2009, there has been no shortage of efforts to bring some kind of change to the district, all of which have been rooted in cutting costs or improving educational opportunities for students — and sometimes, a little of both.

In the case of the continuing work of some Frankfort residents to pull their town out of RSU 20 in the hopes of joining Hampden-based SAD 22, some moves for change pre-date consolidation. In March 2009, for example, Frankfort residents voted at town meeting to raise $7,500 for legal fees to explore the possibility of withdrawing from what was then still SAD 56.

Secession remains on the minds of Frankfort residents these days, with an Election Day boost providing enough signatures on a pair of petitions to see if voters at the ballot box would agree to the secession and the move to SAD 22. That vote is expected to take place in early 2012.

Mailloux said while the loss of Frankfort Elementary School wouldn’t become reality until September of 2013 at the earliest, it is still a big change that the district is bracing for now in case Frankfort voters pass the measure.

Connerty-Marin said he is aware of a few cases in Maine where communities have carried over an interest in seceding from an SAD after the entity became part of an RSU, much like Frankfort. Others, however, appeared to come as the direct result of consolidation.

“I think some [school communities] have that sense that maybe they’re not in the right place,” he said.

While many district partnerships were forged rather easily, Connerty-Marin said, it was a different case for others.

“Some went remarkably well, though certainly not perfectly, and some were not as smooth as others,” he said.

Although he said there have always been inquiries from individuals or small groups within school communities seeking information about secession from SADs, there has been “an uptick” in those inquiries since consolidation went through nearly two years ago.

The process of seceding from an RSU is not different from the one used to pull out of an SAD, Connerty-Marin said. The effort begins with a petition, and if that drive is successful, that goes to a referendum vote. If voters are on board with the idea, a committee including town residents is created for the purposes of working with the RSU to draft a withdrawal plan.

During that process, Connerty-Marin said, all of the debts, assets and other specifics about the school are weighed, and the educational needs of the affected students must be considered.

Once the withdrawal plan is drafted, it goes back to the voters, where a two-thirds majority in the affirmative must be achieved in order to move on to the next step, which is submitting the plan to the state for final approval.

Connerty-Marin said successful secession efforts, while not impossible, are rare. That is because either the interest lies only with a small group within the community  and cannot gain the support at the ballot box, or because the process of creating the withdrawal plan reveals data suggesting secession is not cost effective.

“Sometimes, after going through that process, it turns out that there is a relatively small savings that will come from it, and they find they’ll get a big headache from the effort that would be involved in making that happen,” he said.

For RSU 20, the withdrawal of Frankfort would mean a net loss of about $1.3 million to the district, Mailloux said.

And there would be some transitional allowances if the withdrawal comes to fruition, adding another layer of complexity to the process. Children who are attending FES at the time of the vote would have the choice of remaining in RSU 20 schools or making the switch to the Hampden district, Mailloux said. Those who prefer RSU 20 to SAD 22 would still be able to attend classes in RSU 20 with a superintendent’s agreement even after the move became official.

This kind of schoolhouse shuffle is ongoing in other school districts across Maine — the newsroom section of the state DOE website carries media accounts detailing ongoing secession efforts on the part of Starks residents (who aim to leave the Madison-based SAD 59 and instead join the Mt. Blue Regional School District in Farmington) and Monmouth citizens’ move to leave RSU 2 (including Dresden, Hallowell and Farmingdale). Monmouth locals have expressed interest in joining Winthrop-based Alternative Organization Structure 97.

Many of these ongoing efforts, noted Mailloux, grew after the state law governing the need for consolidation changed in terms of how long towns must remain in an RSU once it is formed, as well as the penalties that districts would face for refusing to consolidate.

The penalties, which Mailloux had stated at a July public meeting may have been as high as $750,000 for a noncomplying district, have since been eliminated. The length of time a town is required to remain with an RSU has moved from three years to 30 months, paving the way for many of these pull-out efforts and speeding up the process for Frankfort, too.

“That’s why they can vote on this now instead of waiting until June,” Mailloux said.

Growing pains

A campaign that began on Facebook last spring seeking support for dismantling the RSU and re-establishing SADs 34 and 56 has not gathered the kind of momentum that the Frankfort secession effort has, but it  has it gone unnoticed, either.

That action followed the presentation of a school reorganization concept that Mailloux unveiled in May. That concept, which included the closures of several outlying elementary schools and sending all RSU 20 students to one high school and one middle school, ignited a firestorm of public debate about what such a move would mean for the educational experiences of students.

Mailloux was asked about the status of the Facebook movement at one of 11 informational meetings that were held in the nine district towns this fall, at which time he stated that it was neither his role nor that of the RSU 20 school board to look into dismantling the RSU. That’s because Mailloux and all board members, as part of their charges, take oaths to solidify their commitments to operating the RSU.

If there is still interest in pursuing a reversal of consolidation, Mailloux suggested those individuals follow the example of Frankfort resident Gabe Baker, one of several people who have spearheaded the secession effort in Frankfort.

“He’s gone to Augusta, he’s cranked out the numbers,” said Mailloux of Baker’s work. “But folks may get out there and find that [dismantling the RSU] is not cost-effective.”

For example, Mailloux said consolidation eliminated $432,000 worth of central office salaries and building-associated costs when the number of superintendent’s offices went from two to one.

“If we go back to the way it was before we’d have to have a whole new central office,” said Mailloux.

Connerty-Marin added that since consolidation resulted in the dissolving of two legal entities — in this case, SADs 34 and 56 — the two SADs no longer exist and essentially, we can’t go home again. Instead, RSU 20 would have to dissolve, and then the individual towns would need to come together and petition to form another RSU.

“There are no more SADs,” said Connerty-Marin.

A Monday, Dec. 5 web search for the Facebook page seeking support for reversing the creation of the RSU turned up no matching results, but a Facebook page titled “I Oppose the RSU 20 Reorganization” is still active and according to the page itself was created “as a forum for people to voice their opinions, share facts and raise awareness” prior to a non-binding referendum vote that was originally planned for the November election.

That vote never happened, though, because in late September the RSU 20 school board defeated a motion to schedule the referendum for Nov. 8. The reasons for the failed motion were many, as directors struggled with everything from a lack of agreement about how to write the ballot question to a concern about uninformed members of the public who might have voted in the affirmative based solely on the $1.8 million in estimated savings reorganization might bring.

At that time, the board decided it would gather public input in other ways, including the continued collection of questions residents asked at one of 11 informational meetings that were held on the subject of consolidation.

Since then, the informational meetings have concluded and the public has expressed overall dissatisfaction with the concept, but Mailloux said the school board is still faced with filling a budget gap of at least $2.6 million for 2012-2013.

What that means for RSU 20 is that maintaining the status quo is not becoming any less costly for taxpayers, and the problem is steadily growing as the state offers the district less money to operate each year.

A comparison of the regional school budgets shows the combined SAD 34 and 56 budget for the 2008-09 school year came in at $34,892,938 and the districts collected a total of $16,693,315. For the 2010-11 year, the RSU 20 budget was at $32,514,987 and the district brought in $13,848,981 worth of state aid and other anticipated revenue. The municipal assessments in 2008-09 were at $18,199,623, while in 2010-11, the number rose to $18,666,096.

Unless something changes in the way RSU 20 operates, Mailloux said the pain will worsen for residents who are already struggling financially.

“People need to move beyond the emotional part and just take a realistic look at everything,” he said.

Connerty-Marin said consolidation has had a similar impact on other RSUs across the state in that many are closing smaller schools with decreasing enrollments in favor of getting better use out of larger existing buildings or constructing bigger, more cost effective schools. The transition has been especially tough on towns that face a school closure and the possibility of sending their children to another district, let alone another school.

For districts like RSU 20, Connerty-Marin said, it’s more a matter of deciding where it makes the most sense to close a small school, though he was quick to acknowledge that the issue is very emotional for those living in affected communities.

“A district that has two or three schools with declining enrollments has a lot more options for closing schools while still keeping all their kids in the same district,” said Connerty-Marin. “People love having smaller schools, but sometimes small is too small.”

Moving forward

What could RSU 20 look like in five or 10 years?

That’s a difficult question to answer, Mailloux said, especially since there currently is no specific plan in place that will address declining state and federal dollars, steadily decreasing enrollments and some school buildings that are now operating at as low as 50 percent capacity.

While Mailloux said the reorganization concept remains on the table as an option, district residents, parents and board memberts have taken the board up on its open request for alternative plans.

“We’ve had some ideas and some requests come in,” said Mailloux, adding that he is currently working up the numbers for five different options that have been presented to him.

So far the problems Mailloux has encountered with the alternative concepts is that the savings resulting from each have yet to reach the realm of millions.

“You struggle to find the kind of savings you need,” said Mailloux. “We’re not talking about $100,000 anymore, the word that keeps popping up is millions.”

There have been suggestions in the past about making sweeping cuts to balance the budget, such as eliminating all sports programs. But Mailloux said even if the district were no longer funding the athletic programs, it would not bring in a significant savings and many more cuts would have to be made in order to fill the gap.

That’s why Mailloux said there has been so much discussion about school closures, reconfigurations and other changes that are on a much larger scale than what has been considered in the past.

“People need to move beyond the emotional part and just take a realistic look at everything,” he said.