St. George holds first public discussion on education options
St. George — The town education committee and the select board held a public meeting Oct. 25 to address educational options for consideration regarding the town's relationship with Regional School Unit 13.
Committee Chairman Terry Driscoll said those seeking an answer at the hearing would be disappointed, as the committee's intent was to assemble the facts and issues. "We're not here to advocate, we're here to educate," he said.
The public meetings are scheduled to inform the community about the process of withdrawing from the district, if approved by the select board pending the town's decision.
A second meeting is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 30 and residents can vote on Nov. 6 whether or not to withdraw from the district. The referendum is non-binding and the purpose is to gauge the town's commitment to long-term education reform. Regardless of the vote, the select board has the final decision to determine how to proceed.
Driscoll provided a presentation where he covered finance, school performance, available options, governance and withdrawal issues for discussion.
Since consolidation in 2009, Driscoll said 70 positions have been cut in the district and the MacDougal School was closed. The annual operating budget decreased by $2.3 million this year, and the cumulative state funding decreased almost $ 9 million. Additionally, grades were re-assigned, and an eighth- to 12th-grade high school established. Driscoll said there were no savings seen as had been promised through merging the districts.
Scott Vaitones, business manager for RSU 13, said the cumulative state funding decrease of almost 9 million resulted from a state vote in 2002 to fund public education at 55 percent. He said at the end of the Baldacci administration, funding was near 54 percent. Currently, that funding is at 45.73 percent. "That's where loss came from, it has nothing to do with the RSU," he said.
David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Department of Education said the state did have a $100 million loss annually in state funding education from 2008 to 2011 due to the economic situation. He said stimulus money from the federal government added into the system kept funds relatively flat for two years without dropping.
Marin said the 55 percent was not reached and the legislature tried to implement a plan over five years to reach that goal but was unable to fully realize it, getting close in 2009 with 53 percent.
Driscoll agreed it is a state funding issue.
Driscoll said in the last three years, St. George has saved $1.3 million in taxes where Thomaston and Rockland have seen increases of $800,000 and $1.3 million, respectively.
Driscoll said the towns with the tax increases have a lower annual income than municipalities like St. George, Owls Head and Cushing — towns that saw tax decreases.
When the state cut subsidies to schools, Rockland and Thomaston felt the hit and since St. George wasn't a state subsidy receiver, the cuts were not felt, said St. George Select Board Chairman William Reinhardt.
The RSU 13 funding formula is based on a 75 percent property evaluation and a 25 percent student population. Rockland has a higher count of students, accounting for the higher share taxes, said Vaitones.
He added that the cost-sharing formula is starting to phase in, and the wild swings are attributed to that.
"What's affordable for one town is not affordable for another," said one resident.
"Towns, with how they choose to spend their money, show their values," said Driscoll.
Testing scores are not the whole story of a school, but they are indicative of the school, Driscoll said.
The data presented the 2011 NECAP test scores for the St. George School eighth grade and the Oceanside West eighth grade, showing that St. George bested Oceanside West in all subjects excluding math. St. George fared better than the state average besides math.
The creation of an eighth- to 12th-grade high school is the issue that "kicked it all off," said Driscoll.
A benefit to the consolidation is the intervention programs at Oceanside West and the additional course offerings at Oceanside East, including more advanced placement courses.
Poor testing performance at the high school level is not new.
In statistics illustrating the performance of Georges Valley and Rockland High School from 2007-2011, the data showed that Georges Valley scored the lowest in core subject areas, besides math. In comparison, Camden Hills Regional High School scored much higher than both Georges Valley and Rockland during those years.
Some citizens acknowledged the former Georges Valley and Rockland High Schools were mediocre schools.
"The question is, 'how did we allow this to happen?,'" said Driscoll.
Driscoll said it's not an issue of apathy or ignoring problems, adding the RSU board is working to respond to problems. He added, however, that the solutions can be questioned, but not the effort or intent.
"We'll go nowhere if we don't have a different level of accountability or engagement," said Driscoll.
The system is not meeting the needs of children, said committee member Don Choquette. "One of the questions we need to answer is, where do we want to set the bar?"
Turnover rate has been high on the school board, said Driscoll, adding that members who voted for consolidation are no longer serving, and no longer responsible for the decision.
Driscoll also cited the committee's concerns of the lack of measuring goals. A strategic plan will be released by RSU 13 this fall. Citizens will not be allowed to vote for approval of the plan, but public input may be included. A meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 12 for public input, said board member Loren Andrews.
Driscoll said there is a potential to resolve the issues regarding community involvement and accountability, citing the top-down management structure of the board and one-size-fits-all mentality.
St. George wants a more empowered role in educational decisions made, with the opportunity to spend its own funds for programs and investments if desired.
"There are other structures that can be put in place to give the town discretion and accountability," Driscoll said.
"Everything doesn't have to happen at the center — things can happen at the margins. Unless you are loosening up the governance of local schools, you are cutting off the potential for parents and teachers to innovate and create," he said.
Driscoll said the committee's sense is that it's critical to engage the towns. "We're dealing with a new structure, and shouldn't fall back on old ideas — we can teach each other," he said, adding, that currently, that's not possible.
If the town chooses to withdraw, an independent school district is a feasible option, said Driscoll. In this instance, St. George would retain a kindergarten to eighth-grade school and tuition high school students to area schools for a set state price. The tuition rate for the 2012-2013 academic year is about $9,000. The school would be governed by a five person board of directors.
Vaitones said that for the state Department of Education to approve a withdrawal, a signed written agreement is needed with a high school to accept every student. "To assume that will be RSU 13, Camden, Medomak, Lincoln Academy or Erskine Academy is a poor assumption," he said. "You need to know that answer," he said.
In the financial analysis and report completed by the committee, the conclusion was that it is financially feasible for the town to establish an independent district. The report was completed using the current district budgets and tax structure.
Special education costs are generally a significant and volatile component of the budget that can change dramatically in a year, said Driscoll. A reserve account was considered to mitigate those changes. The cost for special education for the current report was pro-rated based on number of St. George students.
Teacher Josh McPhail said this issue is bigger than the K-8 question, citing when the consolidation question was originally raised, St. George voted against it. He reiterated that St. George was told it would have a vote if the high school was merged, and that their school wouldn't lose anything.
"We were forced into it [consolidation] and very quickly, the high school was consolidated without a vote."
He also mentioned the eighth-grade transition to Oceanside West and the elimination of sports programs at the St. George school. "Nobody was brought in for discussion of that," he said.
"The history is there and it happens over and over again that you have no say in your school," he said. "All the cards are in the school board's hands."
McPhail urged residents to vote in favor of withdrawal albeit the process is messy and not ideal.
"Until the school board brings back everything they pulled out of here, and until they give a local board power here to check what they're doing, the best thing is to go it alone," he said.
Voting yes sends a message that the community cares about the school, he said, referencing the effort by the town 30 years ago to keep St. George students from attending Thomaston Grammar School.
"Can you imagine if they had given up? There wouldn't have been a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade here for 30 years. Can you imagine not having that experience?" he said.
"I'm in — I'm in for the long haul," he said.
RSU Board Member Sherman Hoyt said the new superintendent, Lew Collins, is a good superintendent and will work on issues that are of concern to the communities in the district. "The work that the RSU 13 board does is tremendous," he added.
Loren Andrews, school board member from Cushing, said he believes every town should have a local school committee. "If every town was as committed, dedicated and involved as you are — if we could all do that, it'd be a remarkable district."
Driscoll said he would like to see the town continue on two tracks to see what could be worked out with the board and still consider disengaging from the district.
He said the withdrawal could take up to two years.
Driscoll said he wants to keep the issue in front of the community. "Who are we, what do we believe, what aspirations do we have for our kids?"
Residents can vote on the issue Nov. 6 on a table outside of the general voting area at the town office. If a resident is out of town, an email can be sent to Town Manager John Falla indicating how they would like to vote, in favor or against withdrawal.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at email@example.com.