Withdrawal from RSU 20 will keep school governance local and democratic

My wife and I attended the RSU 20 School Board meeting on Jan. 28 at the Belfast High School. Attendance was very good, in part because the board was scheduled to continue their deliberations over three selected courses of action designed to lower the costs of operating the school district. Two of those plans called for the closing of Searsport High School and Searsport Middle School. These two plans had elicited very vocal opposition from the citizens of Searsport and Stockton Springs. Other towns also showed great concern over these developments. By the time of this meeting of Jan. 28, all eight towns in the RSU 20 school district had begun the process of withdrawing from the school district.

As the reader may already know, the school board voted, overwhelmingly, to stop consideration of these courses of action and shift their attention to other matters. This will shift the onus for any budget shortfalls in next year’s budget onto the budget committee and, ultimately, the taxpayers and voters of the eight towns within the RSU 20 district.

In my opinion, this is a positive development because it retains the Searsport campuses that are doing such a remarkable job of serving our students and our communities.

So why withdraw? The threat is over, right? Here is why withdrawal is still so important.

During discussion of the motion to end consideration of the three so-called "courses of action," Director Charles Grey read from a legal document which he characterized as a description of the responsibilities of a school board member. He made it very clear that, in his estimation, a member of the school board does not represent the people who elected him (or her) to serve there. Once on the school board, he said, the member becomes an agent of the state of Maine and does not represent the town he or she came from or the people who voted for him.

This means that the RSU 20 school board can vote to do anything within their power, such as closing your school, and the board members do not have to consider your opinion at all. They serve the state, not you.

Well, kudos to the majority of the board members present on Jan. 28, because they did listen to the wishes of their constituents. We are very grateful to those members, but as concerned parents and citizens, we must move to address this lack of representation.

We have lost all control of the major decisions which affect the education of our children and the fabric of our communities. The schools which educate our children, employ some of our most desirable citizens, and provide the catalyst for a sense of community in small towns like Searsport and Stockton Springs, can be closed by a vote of a school board that is only answerable to the state of Maine. The communities in which we live, raise our children, put down our roots and establish our homes can be permanently disfigured by the short-term whims of a group of 17 people over whom we have no control.

I believe that my government is me. I believe that our government is us. I have come to expect that government derives its power from the people. That means that you and I govern ourselves through the representative process and the ultimate power rests with the governed (us), not the government.

If you believe that, too, then the very structure of the RSU School Board flies in the face of your desire for your control of your schools. We must withdraw from RSU 20 in order to return control of our schools to the communities they serve.

What about the money?

Local control is going to cost more money because we lose some of the economies of scale. Now, it is said that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time, but he was a fascist dictator! Certainly his government was efficient, but at what cost? Is money your bottom line? If so, then you will want to stay in the RSU and take what you get.

On the other hand, do you want the best outcome for your children and your community? Democracy is more expensive. It is not as efficient. But I believe a democracy is what we are. If you agree, then call your state and federal representatives and tell them how important your schools are to you. Use your telephone, your mailbox and your vote to send your message. Withdraw from RSU 20, regain control over your local schools and by the way, get ready to pay higher taxes.

As a community, we can explore mechanisms that lessen the impact on our neighbors who are living on fixed incomes. We can, and should, be a little more open to business development in our communities as a way to build our tax base to help pay for our schools. We can, and should, redouble our efforts to optimize our Town budgets to reflect our priorities. And we, absolutely, should continue the very promising efforts of our Searsport School administrators to turn our Searsport schools into magnet schools which will attract students and help pay the price for having such fine institutions of learning right here in Searsport, Maine.

As for me; my child and my hometown are worth it. I believe that strong schools build strong communities. And, I know that you only get what you pay for. My child and every child in this community are worth it to me.

How about you?

Bob H.

Stockton Springs

Withdrawal conversations should focus on education and financial prudence

It seems that there are finally two adults to be heard in the circus that is the withdrawal effort. Mayor Ash asked the questions and Superintendent Carpenter provided some hard numbers.

Mayor Ash's first question was "What are we going after?" There are only two answers to that question: A, our kids will get a better education or B, we have identified substantial saving for our long-suffering tax payers that will not affect the quality of education. Neither possibility has yet been answered by the circus that is our elected board, the withdrawal committees of the various towns or the Belfast City Council.

From my point of view and that of many other residents that I have been in contact with, this effort has not been about kids, education and financial prudence. It was initiated by the Belfast teachers and their allies on the board, on the withdrawal committees and the City Council. (Why a city council even should be involved and actually is spending large amounts of tax payers money on an issue that should be handled by an elected board is a mystery to me. Why bother with a board? Just let the council handle it.)

In letters to the editor, and comments at meetings at the board and committee level, the Belfast teachers and their allies on the board, city council and withdrawal committees openly exhibited their disdain for the teachers and students of the former SAD 56 and for any suggested changes in the operation of the district. Sadly the board member from my town was an eager participant. This effort is not about education or financial prudence but what we are witnessing is a strong arm effort by the Belfast teachers to maintain a cosy — and very costly to the tax payers — status quo that has been shown to be quite inefficient in transmitting knowledge effectively to our kids and has been discarded by many districts in the state. They have been able to intimidate the board for a long time and sadly to say also the previous super who's "good old boy" motto of go along and get along has dumped this whole mess into Superintendent Carpenter's lap. Not once in all the sound and fury and money being spent have any withdrawal advocates shown a way to educational improvement for our kids and financial savings for the tax payers. That should answer Mayor Ash's first question.

His second question " Is it money? " was finally answered by Superintendent Carpenter who put some hard numbers to the plans that had been kicked around by the board. As usual, when faced with making a decision on which plan to accept, the board punted. I guess their hope is the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus will help out. It would be nice to see some board member with a back bone to stand up to the constituents that are adamantly opposed to closing "their" school. At all meetings I have attended these advocates display a very limited understanding of the cost involved in operating a school at 1/3 or less capacity. The board member present never supplies any hard figures. That includes our Swanville board member.

I can help out with some approximation. Mr. Carpenter happily stated at our Swanville session that he would keep the school open if the town of Swanville would assume the cost. Based on the cost of operating the Frankfort school which was supplied by the board during the closure of that school, the Swanville school is about equivalent in cost. So we in Swanville face an extra operating cost of $360,000 to $400,000 (cost of acquiring building not included) on top of the money we'll have to spent for the Middle and High School operations. Based on last year's tax commitment, taxpayers in Swanville would face a tax hike of 30 to 40% not including the rental or purchase of the school. (So would other towns that elected to pay for their schools.)

Why not word the voting question for the withdrawal as follows: "Are you willing to pay another 40 percent in taxes to keep the Swanville school open and to withdraw from RSU 20?" By the way why can our board member not produce these numbers when questioned at meetings?

The third question by Mayor Ash was "What are we looking at?" Since none of the numerous meetings of the boards, committees and City Council have answered this I will give it a try. We are looking a a district that under Mr. Carpenters leadership has made tremendous strides in combining two former districts into one entity. (Under the previous leadership no real efforts were made to unify the two districts with the exception of repainting the buses with the RSU 20 logo.) Mr. Carpenter and the business manager have found and implemented many money saving policies and many more have been identified. These changes are being made without affecting the quality of instruction. Mr. Carpenter was not afraid to look at the Searsport state-of-the-art instruction effort and transfer some of that into the newly formed district. The Belfast teachers felt they were being moved out of their accustomed comfort zone in order to get with this program.

Unfortunately instead of embracing the chance to improve the students' learning experience the teachers went to war to keep their cosy sinecure. The harvest they have reaped so far has been a district in disarray, much tax money being spend on lawyers and consultants, the district administration wasting valuable time that should be dedicated to student service in innumerable meetings, teachers set against each other, towns set against each other, a board that is unable to function and a city council that now is divided and involved in school matters.

No mention in all of their efforts to destroy the district has been made of improving student performance and investing the tax payers money prudently. Thank you, Belfast teachers. I would not be surprised if the superintendent who has soldiered on so bravely in spite of a dysfunctional board and teacher animosity decided to leave this theater of the absurd and find a job in a more sane place. Please Mr. Carpenter stay around and heal this district. You are the only adult left in this tragic comedy.

Peter Petersen


In praise of innovative education

The Republican Journal article about Exploratory Week at Mount View High School was exciting to read as an example of innovative ways to engage our young people in their education and helping them to learn a broader range of skills. In addition, being exposed to topics that are completely different from the typical school curriculum can accomplish the “holy grail” of modern education: learning how to learn. Tackling projects that are outside the comfort zone of the student is terrific way to question assumptions and build new skills.

Two of our children have attended the Watershed School, now located in Camden. Watershed has long had a similar week just after Christmas break – Project Week. During this period (which is actually 10 days long), students design and execute their own projects. A Subject Matter Expert selected by the student helps guide them in setting goals, acquiring background knowledge and developing plans. The students present their accomplishments in pecha kucha format for other student, parents and community members.

This year’s projects included dress making, boat building, learning Finnish, researching antiques, and building a bicycle-propelled cider press. For several students, the annual projects are a multi-year progression in knowledge and complexity. Past students have gone on to major in college in their project subjects.

I hope that more schools can incorporate innovative experiences for our young people to help them to be more engaged in school and to push themselves to learn how to learn.

Steve Ryan