Save RSU 20

By Faith L.Garrold | Feb 06, 2014

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.

Comments (9)
Posted by: Harold Richardson | Feb 13, 2014 14:32

It was in the BDN yesterday that the two high schools in Millinocket may be combined for a savings of over 700k.  The article also said that the kids would get a better education because more programs could be offered due to the economics of having a larger student population.  People that argue against combining the RSU20 schools are doing both the kids and the taxpayers a disservice. 

Posted by: Leslie Lavender | Feb 13, 2014 08:09

Thank you Mr.Hyk. Ms. Garrold, my husband and I rarely eat out, we do not buy lottery tickets and we watch movies at home. We can afford to pay our property taxes, but, I am sorry, 10% plus increases each year are too much! One valuable lesson we need to teach our young people is to learn to make do with what you have. I am not blaming the children, but the adults who are resisting change. I actually heard a woman say that she would drive her children to Bangor every day before she would send them to Searsport. I am not kidding, I was shocked at her passion. This attitude is troubling (I can't think of a better word and that doesn't really express my feelings upon hearing that statement). The population of young people in Maine is decreasing. There are more classrooms than children to fill them. I feel very abused as a taxpayer and there is nothing I can do to stop this trip to crazy town. We are good at pointing fingers (people don't want what is best for the kids, Augusta is cutting their share, the "good" people will pay more, etc), but it seems that the taxpayer is looked upon as the go-to, fix-all, problem-solver. Just hit the taxpayer again, problem solved! Is there a solution that gives taxpayers some relief? Leslie Lavender

Posted by: Brian Callahan | Feb 07, 2014 17:41

Faith... Excellent article. It hit the nail right on the head. Brian Callahan

Posted by: Diana B Hyk | Feb 07, 2014 13:08

Ms. Garrold,

If you honestly believe that dining out less frequently, purchasing fewer Lottery tickets and missing out on a movie or two will solve the fiscal nightmare that is  RSU 20 I must respectfully disagree. At this point MANY have no choice but to cut spending on fuel, medicine or property taxes. With another 2 to 2.5 million dollar cut coming from Augusta shortly we will be looking at yet another astonishing leap in property taxes again this year. The Homestead reimbursement that previously gave senior citizens a break has now been reduced to virtually nothing, many people will not be able to remain in their homes with the the coming increases. The Property taxes in all the RSU 20 towns are already so high that economic development has been impacted and it will be getting worse.  I would advise you to not be too elated by the Board's refusal to go forward on any of the Consolidation proposals, it was clear there would never be enough votes to go forward on any of the plans. By refusing to truly Consolidate a Darwinian process has begun; with an ever diminishing student population, with Staff and Administration salaries and benefits totally out of balance with the average household income for Waldo County ( $42,000.00), something  within the economic fundamentals must change in order for the system to survive.

Christopher Hyk



Posted by: Alan Wood | Feb 07, 2014 09:23

Faith, wonderful article. Many in both Searsport and Belfast  feel there will be a magic wand if we get rid of sharing administrative costs, sharing ideas from school to school, and reduce the size of the board. We could do that with just having two school boards and one administration for both. We the board just need to improve our communication and be leaders in education renovation. We need to communicate with the public better as what we are doing well and the cuts we have made and will make.  Mostly we have to stop bashing each other and listen to each other.  My main goal this year is for the board to improve education and focus mostly on why we should keep the district together.  We will need to talk more at the board meetings about education and have each principal meet with their staff at our meetings to explain what is working at each school.  Withdrawal only means we kick the ball down the court two years and somehow with two districts a magic formula will arrive.  It won't so as communities let show and tell what education means to all of us and that both Searsport and Belfast are one voice for education.  Maybe a two year turmoil of Withdrawal will not need to happen. Alan Wood

Posted by: Harold Richardson | Feb 07, 2014 07:28

""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.""  No it wouldn't.  The total amount spent on all these things is not even a pimple on the butt of the 34 million spent each year by the RSU.  There is too much infrastructure for way few kids and the problem is as simple as that.  Spending per child is above the state average by a considerable amount and the taxpayers in the RSU are spending plenty of money to provide a quality education for these kids.  Too much money is being spent on excess while core classes are being cut back.  Once again, the can has been kicked down the road and we will be looking at two more years at least of both drastic cuts and huge tax increases.  The kids have been missing out for a long time now while those in charge wring their hands trying to figure out what should be clear to all.

Posted by: Sarah E. Crosby | Feb 06, 2014 22:24

Bravo, Faith, for putting the focus where it should be, and in a positive direction. Perhaps we need  a student team to help us think ahead with vision to 2020.

Posted by: Peter Petersen | Feb 06, 2014 19:41


This is the type of plan we need from our board, a coherent strategy to maximize our resources by building upon them, not wasting time fighting over details. Board members please remember you are elected as representatives of ALL the children, not just the ones from your town.

JoAn Petersen

Posted by: Debora Riley | Feb 06, 2014 18:44

Excellent, well written article! Thank you for a voice of reason amid all the chaos!

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