The similarities between the fight for health care in Washington, D.C. and the attempt to consolidate schools in our local communities are striking.

For decades, there has been a realization that our national health care system is broken. During that same period, however, attempts to reform the system to provide universal care have failed.

The cost of health insurance has been crippling the middle class and lower income residents. With the worsening economy, more people are finding themselves without insurance.

For more than a decade, the need to consolidate school systems has been known. Numerous studies have pointed out the need for consolidation of at least the administrative function of schools. Maine School Administrative Districts 5 and 50 finally merged this year after many years of discussion.

The only significant cost savings, however, could come with consolidation of school buildings.

The cost of education has been crippling the middle class and lower income residents. A combination of higher spending by districts and reduced state aid has shifted the cost of schools more on the property tax.

A typical Rockland homeowner, for example, pays $2,600 in property taxes each year regardless of their income. If a person were fortunate to have a home worth $300,000, the annual tax would exceed $5,000. And half of that cost goes for the schools.

There was an expectation that the past year was going to be the one where health insurance reform would occur. But insurance companies launched their counterattack by scaring people into believing that reforms were simply a sinister attempt by the government to take over the health care industry and force old people to die in the hallways of hospitals.

It appears that real reform will not occur this year and if not this year, it is not likely to occur for many more years.

In regard to school consolidation, a group called the High School Study Group met for the past four months and came up with the recommendation to combine Rockland District High School and Georges Valley High School. The plan would have assigned eighth- and ninth-graders to the GVHS building and sophomores, juniors and seniors to RDHS.

RDHS and GVHS are less than five miles and 11 minutes apart. Both schools teach English. They both teach math. They both teach science, social studies and foreign languages.

The committee concluded that it was rather redundant, for example, to have Regional School Unit 13 taxpayers pay for a class of five for some advanced course in Rockland and pay the same cost a few miles away in Thomaston.

But the recommendation has met with a firestorm that exploded publicly at the Thursday night meeting of the school board. Seventy-five people turned out to oppose the proposed consolidation. They argued that the merger was occurring too fast. Some acknowledged that consolidation of the high schools was necessary but much more study was needed.

Much of the opposition came from St. George although there were citizens from Rockland and other Regional School Unit 13 communities as well.

St. George has never been a fan of being in a school district. Less than 20 years ago, a group of citizens from St. George worked to have the town separate from SAD 50. That effort failed. St. George voters were strongly opposed to the formation of RSU 13.

Several of the speakers alluded to the impact the consolidation would have on athletics. If each high school only had one varsity, one junior varsity and one freshman team for the various sports, then fewer students would participate in those programs. The other side, however, is that underused programs could accept those students. Indoor track is a great example of a sport that could accept more students.

The last time this many citizens turned out to a school board meeting was several years ago when a board member suggested the possibility of cutting football.

For all the talk of people caring about academics, sports remain the driving force for many students and parents.

The district will develop the budget over the next few months and faces a $2.5 million gap between what it expects in revenues and what its current costs are. If this were to be raised fully from property taxes, the taxes of the six communities would jump. Rockland taxpayers would pay about $200 more next year just from the schools.

This comes at a time when more and more properties are being acquired by Rockland for nonpayment of taxes.

The High School Study Committee recognized the looming financial crunch as it developed its recommendation.

But people hold dear their local schools. Parents warned of a difficult transition for students if they had to go to different schools.

There was the same concern in my community back in the 1970s. Stonington and Deer Isle are towns located on the same island in Penobscot Bay. The school board proposed building a new high school to serve both communities but that was rejected just as often by the public. Eventually, the two towns — and three mainland communities — moved into the existing Stonington High School.

When a new school was proposed, parents worried about the impact on students of moving into a new, larger school.

As one of those students, I’m not aware of any of my classmates who suffered by moving to Stonington High School or later to the new Deer Isle-Stonington High School in January 1976.

Young people can adapt. I’m not sure about parents.

The issue will likely divide community members. Those with students may oppose the plan but those without children in the schools may consider the consolidation as a common sense way to deal with the looming financial crisis.

The board’s decision to forgo consolidation this year and to set no timetable may mean that consolidation will occur about as soon as universal health care is enacted in Washington.

Stephen Betts is associate editor. His commentary appears on this page on Saturdays.