St. George education committee sets sights on October public hearings, reviews budget
St. George — The St. George Town Education Committee met Aug. 14 to review the financial report on the cost of becoming an independent district and to set hearings to inform the public of educational options.
Committee members Terence "Terry" Driscoll and Don Choquette said it would cost $4,103,000 to operate a K-8 school and send high school students to other schools. The budget they designed is based on the Regional School Unit 13 budget approved this year. St. George's share of that $26.5 million budget was $4,151,400.
"We are trying to do an apples-to-apples comparison, but we also have a lot of ideas and suggestions that we could make to the town as things we should do," said Choquette.
Additional emphasis on teacher training and curriculum are included in the budget and transportation has been decided at five buses, on a lease-to-purchase agreement, and auxiliary vehicles such as a van and a maintenance vehicle.
As an independent school district, St. George could tuition high school students to Oceanside High School, Camden Hills Regional High School and the private Watershed High School, located in Camden.
The high school instruction tuition rates, gathered from the state, equal about $9,000 per student to enroll in Camden, Watershed or Oceanside High Schools. Driscoll said he expects that number to increase. The schools that were considered as tuition schools were used as a base. Driscoll added the town would decide which schools to select.
Driscoll said the committee sees great value in school choice.
Special education accounted for the largest portion of capital. The $383,161 is just St. George's share for the total number of special ed students; it's not based on the community's actual need.
Although the number is high, Driscoll said, "We want the town to understand what it could be, even if it's not what it is" for out-of-district placements. The goal is to create a reserve to ensure that yearly budgets remain constant.
"We know the number of special education teachers, and where the bulk of the special education students and teachers are, and they are not in St. George," Choquette said.
St. George would also seek a candidate to function as both superintendent and principal if the town operated a K-8 school.
"It is feasible to run the school district under these terms, whether we have desirability is another matter," said Driscoll.
Residents will vote in November on whether to approve a non-binding referendum to withdraw from RSU 13.
Before that vote, public hearings will be held to describe withdrawing and other options. The initial goal of TEC was to provide more opportunities for town involvement in the school district. No other towns in RSU 13 have similar committees.
Driscoll said high turnover rates on the school board and within the administration have set up a situation where there is little accountability because there is no continuity. Only five of the 13 board members that were on the board during the first year of school consolidation remain. Superintendents remain for an average of three years, Choquette said.
Choquette added it takes a significant amount of time for each board member to become familiar with issues.
Teacher evaluations and the need to increase academic rigor within the St. George School were concerns for two parents in attendance. One parent said her children aren't academically prepared and multiple attempts at voicing her concerns have not been sufficiently met by staff and the administration. The feasibility of developing a pre-kindergarten program was also discussed.
Select Board member William Reinhardt said focus has always been on the assessment of students and not educators.
TEC acknowledged these areas require a lot of attention and there is much work to be done, adding that feedback is imperative to determining what's needed for improvement.
Choquette said, "It doesn't cut it for our kids. They only go down this road once. If they don't get the education they need in each grade level, by the time they get to high school, they have some real problems."
Driscoll said one problem is the school board has a sense of equity where everyone is treated the same. "It's not the case," he said. "Issues Rockland people speak of are very different from the issues St. George people are speaking about."
Choquette said there is a feeling on the school board that St. George complains. "We are not whining, we were talking about a K-8 system that provided a better education system for our kids. We got nowhere," he said.
Choquette said competition between schools was a critical issue. "My whole life I competed for everything I earned and it had a positive effect," Choquette said. "Our children need this competition. The RSU 13 board would not support competition among its schools." Choquette cited this as the reason he joined the education committee.
To remain in the district and work with RSU 13, Reinhardt said there are two fundamental issues to consider: allowing a town committee programmatic and budgetary authority. For example, a town committee could advocate for a pre-kindergarten program, paid for by the municipality.
For St. George to leave the RSU 13 district, 50 percent of residents would need to vote in favor of the withdrawal.