All I Want For Christmas Is My Two…..

e73aa72fd2993b1dffabfb1dd4faf5d6…School Boards.

Thank you for all the coal, Santa…. (Brrrrrrrrrr!)  But maybe?  ..in lieu of the usual 12 Lords ‘a Leaping…..?  Two School Boards would be lovely.  More on why in a moment.

In the meantime, here is a list of possible scenarios compiled by the RSU 50 Visions Committee.  Bear in mind that these are in no particular order, and no recommendations have been made:

  • No change — “Keep on keepin’ on”
  • PreK-12 in one new building, centrally located in Crystal
  • PreK-12 in one of the existing buildings, closing all others
  • Close a building on the Katahdin side, and move Grades 7-12 to SACS; PreK-6 stays in Stacyville
  • Close half a building in the SACS side and move Grades 7-12 to KMHS; PreK-6 stays in Dyer Brook
  • New building for Grades 7-12; no change elementary
  • Two PreK-12 buildings on both sides of the RSU
  • Elementary Grades (PreK-4) remain local; Middle School (5-8) uses one of the existing buildings and the High School (9-12) uses one of the existing buildings as well (maximize resources)*
  • Consolidation of administrative roles. **
  • Each community keeps its PreK-8 and tuitions 9-12

*“maximize resources”?  The emphasis here, is entirely my own, but I can’t go any further without pointing out that such a thing “maximizes” transportation expenditures, routes that now require one bus now need two to accommodate destinations 20 miles apart; half the student population on either side will now be bussed twice as far as necessary….   Transportation is a cost so often ignored in the debate and no wonder!  The are even left out of many per-pupil expenditure numbers!  They certainly aren’t “left out” of “accounts payable”…  Decisions intended to minimize those per-pupil figures tend to balloon transportation costs, which subsequently  gobble up expected savings.  Longer bus rides have further been shown to diminish student achievement it is one that cries out to be MINIMIZED.  

** Wasn’t that the whole purpose of the RSU Law in the first place?  …to consolidate administration?  “Consolidation of administrative roles”?  Administrative/management growth in the wake of faculty cuts illustrates the predictably broken promise of the RSU in the first place …an inevitable phenomenon of district consolidation that the research can  more easily predict than explain.  As for saving taxpayer dollars?  What administrator would trade salaries with a similarly-experienced teacher?  Hands?  Anyone?

The above list is presented as “…simply a preliminary inventory of “what’s out there”…, ….and much of it is, just that.  Where are the scenarios overwhelmingly supported by our readers?  Nearly 90% of our survey respondents support withdrawal from the RSU, but, given strong interest in forming an AOS instead, it appears that they want to build a relationship between the communities, but on more fair terms — for everyone.  The strategy behind their absence from the discussion is fairly obvious from the standpoint of those set on a new building, but is it wise to marginalize people in this way? Members of the RSU Board have done the same in a, perhaps well-intentioned, though terribly misguided bet that further consolidation and/or new construction will solve the very issues driving withdrawal.   Is this a “Futures” committee in the literal sense?  …where “the future” justifies shortchanging children today? (And, in effect THEIR futures?) Is this an “RSU Committee” in the literal sense?  …concerned with the survival of a piece of paper in its current form?  ….or one concerned with the education of children and mindful of people of the communities it represents?

Not all education dollars are created equally child-centered, certainly, and differ wildly in return on investment for both children and taxpayers.  As education remains every bit a human endeavor, the top of that list is faculty; the teacher student relationship.  Honestly, it isn’t even close.

“…education doesn’t go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students. And if you remove their discretion, it stops working.” — Ken Robinson

…..if you remove THEM it also “stops working”….. Within the teacher/student relationship is where learning happens.  The ability of good teachers to creatively and  resourcefully leverage resources at hand in optimal ways to respond to the needs of children is the lifeblood of any school.  If I had a nickel for every time someone asked why I don’t homeschool our children, I could pay their tuition.  The answer is that I cannot replace the relationships with the wonderful faculty and staff  of Katahdin Elementary, Middle and High Schools.  I know I’m not alone in this, and I’ve heard my feelings echoed in the values of those who have chosen the homeschool route as well.  Our human resources also enrich local communities and strengthen their economies.  ….a real bargain.

Why is faculty inexorably first to the chopping block?

Transportation expenditures, by contrast, are correlated with negative student outcomes, and increasing outlay in this area is a lose-lose for taxpayers as well.

Within the above list of considered scenarios, is the potential to balloon transportation costs, as routes that ran one bus per day now need two in order to accommodate destinations 20 miles apart.***  At any given time, half the student body must be transported an additional 20 miles more than necessary given the existing building array.  Again, these miles detract from student outcomes as well as child health with every gallon of diesel…

***For example: Benedicta, like RSU 50 bus routes, operates one bus.  Sending children of different ages in different directions would necessitate two.  Dyer Brook is 30 miles away.  East Millinocket, on the other hand, is only 18, and houses elementary and high school students together. Of course, I cannot speak for the State, or E.U.T. Superintendent Shelley Lane who have sole discretion here. 

As for the potential massive construction costs?  Buildings don’t educate children, people do.  Buildings need to be kept in decent repair, in a timely fashion, because, as we are seeing, taxpayers resist, and parents resent shortchanging students to pay for years of maintenance deferred.  Research also connects the relocation of schools to outlying, or more “centralized” areas with greater difficulty in raising funds, but likely only scratches the surface of the unquantifiable, often intangible; but very real, loss of the complex relationships between the school and community, that benefits both.   In times of ever-deepening austerity, new construction rings as particularly unconscionable.  Surely no one believes this will be a cost-saving measure…  Where will the money come from?  Taxpayers will surely say “no”… On to the usual place?  ….the children on whom we already spend the least?

Which brings me back to my Christmas wish — two school Boards.

The Committee’s decision to ignore any possibility of RSU withdrawal not only dismisses the serious concerns of supporters, but also misses a  promising solution for real sharing, and genuine efficiency in an Alternative Organizational Structure, or AOS.

Schools share a Superintendent’s offices — anything, really, that is mutually beneficial.  But each K-12 entity maintains its own Board, and, more importantly, its own finances.   Consolidate; close a building or three if you want to.  The difference is in the process, as those complex decisions rest solely with those who will bear the costs —  potential receiving communities of both children and money, rightly, do not decide for you.

Our survey showed that 44 of 49 respondents support withdrawal.  Support for reshaping our relationship in the model of an AOS is strong and growing, as illustrated by this Shamelessly Unscientific Quote of the Day:

Why didn’t we do this in the first place???”  ~ …pretty much everyone upon learning about the AOS option

Though the Baldacci administration told us, ad nauseum, that “…schools would not close….”, the Governor and then-Commissioner Gendron knew that they would.  The (incorrect) assumption that larger campuses, drawing children, hub-and-spoke fashion over long bus routes would save taxpayers money and enhance opportunity  shaped the RSU Law in the first place, and drives the push for further consolidation presently, though empirical evidence of success is nonexistent.     “More advanced courses, more opportunities…..”  the usual goals are outlined in the notes, or, if you are in a hurry, here’s a quick “thousand words”…

rsz_lucy-football-peanuts

“Actually, you DID ‘promise me a rose garden’…

Though dismissed as so much parochial nonsense, our communities’ healthy skepticism (to put is mildly) toward school consolidation is grounded in a keen understanding of what is a rather counter-intuitive reality.  Failure to question every assumption; dogged pursuit of a mythical scale advantage not only burdens taxpayers with growing dis-economies, but also ruins the cost and quality advantages inherent in small schools.

The undue focus on per-pupil expenditures, and the concept of “money following the child” as though education is some sort of consumer product flies in the face of equity, and is just plain wrong.  The use of the word “consumer” in the educational goals outlined by the Visions Committee is, how do I put this, cringeworthy.  (Is that even a word?) The interests of the “Consumer” and the “Citizen” are so often at odds, that it’s hard to fathom that people use them interchangeably.   Language matters, and I hope the committee means “citizen” and will consider revising the goals.   That said, the unnecessary, and, actually, inefficient loss of autonomy and control over tax dollars and children,  is understandably troubling, and the issues driving the withdrawal initiative are entirely logical.  Further consolidation exacerbates rather than solves them.  (So where do withdrawal supporters turn for solutions then?)

My Christmas wish is about process; how decisions are made and who makes them.  Two Boards, is efficient and fair, guarding against the expensive pitfalls of cost shifting, and conflicts of interest between disparate aspirations; decisions that either promote optimal investment in kids or encourage school closure cannot do both.  Every child deserves to attend a school governed by people who treat it as a worthwhile investment, and having a child in a school targeted for closure is, sadly, nothing new to our family.

It’s been said that “…understanding of the world defends against the ravages of it…”  (I forget who said it, and the exact wording — are any of our readers familiar with it?)  It isn’t a perfect defense, but is preferable to misunderstanding.  The pitfalls of school consolidation don’t stem from what people don’t know; it’s what they know for certain that just isn’t true.   I started to learn everything I could about school consolidation, turning to the University of Maine, the Rural Trust and studies of other states, before our oldest son began Pre-K.  The Commissioner of Education at the time, said of Benedicta Elementary School that the $11,000 per-pupil expenditures would be “…better spent elsewhere….”  Now this quote I remember vividly.  It would be unthinkable to apply it to Maine’s wealthier communities.    Though our correspondence was always very polite, even in disagreement, her view of rural children was hard to respect.  Even as the State continues to pay lip service to “equity”,  bias is baked in to State policy, not only against children but rural taxpayers.  (I wonder how the DOE gets away with that, because Maine is, what, nearly 70% rural?  …just sayin’…).  I would encourage the committee, the Board everyone involved  to learn as much as possible; to talk to people, set aside assumptions and study the issue, going wherever that leads and mindful of the ever-present pressure on allotted money to “…spend it elsewhere…”.

Having neither a vote nor Board representation, I have no illusions about my own relevance to this discussion.  To be honest, I’m surprised you’ve scrolled down this far!  I appreciate that….  We do have three children in school here, and I want to help support an optimal learning environment for them and all kids.  Whether it’s chaperoning outings, baking goodies or keeping up with Board meetings and administering “Timbered Classrooms”… For our family, I strive to be very responsive to faculty and staff, and they should feel free to contact us if there is anything more we can do; for children of the RSU, all are welcome to this site — it’s perfectly O.K. to disagree; we publish a wide range of viewpoints.  Robust discussion is a healthy thing.

Again, I appreciate your time, but if I may, I would love to hear from you!  “Timbered Classrooms” is here for you, whatever your beliefs, and offers you a means to preserve your anonymity if you wish.

..a Happy New Year to all of our readers:)

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4 responses to “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two…..

  1. I think withdrawal from the RSU would be the best bet. We just don’t seem to have much say. Our Superintendent is wasting money with this committee, we all know there is an agenda here. Why would we want to bus half our kids over here, and some of their kids over here? It makes no sense. We definitely need our own school board.
    Another thing, how is it good for any community, when the schools are gone? Why would anyone want to move here if we don’t have our own school? It hurts kids, parents, community members, businesses, teachers. We have a small school, so what, we have some great teachers. What is the most important thing here, our kids education. Without Parent involvement and more teacher control over their curriculum, I don’t see how a bureaucratic system is better. Superintendent’s job should go first.

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    • “We just don’t seem to have much say….”. Well, yes and no — neither the Board nor Administration will give you a say, but you would be amazed by how much power you have when you insist on being heard. They would prefer you didn’t know that, but, TAKING a seat at the table with decorum, respect and conviction can move mountains. I completely understand how daunting that is for people who are loathe to offend, but remember that those cries for civility that slap down even the most polite rebuttal in this debate are tactical – designed to silence other voices and control the narrative. Don’t fall for it, because it doesn’t work for long.

      We all know there is an agenda here, partly because the Superintendent was surprisingly open about it in the beginning. Though I disagreed with his agenda, I found it refreshing. Pretense to the contrary just looks silly, so I don’t mind calling it out.

      I used to work in Economic Development – basically chasing smokestacks and pouring taxpayers’ money into them, and can tell you that investment in pre-K – 12 education has been shown to give communities the greatest return on investment. The symbiotic relationship between school and community is a two-way street, and though impossible to quantify, is nonetheless real and, in fact, priceless. Obviously you have a keen understanding of the mechanisms there.

      Is a small school really more expensive? Per pupil, maybe, but total? If our family were to take a lesson from those who become unhinged by declining enrollments, I would give birth to more children so I could afford to feed them and abandon our house and construct another — maybe putting our children of different ages in different towns. The costs of bussing/building our way to optimal capacity with every enrollment fluctuation is far more costly, and comes directly out of our children’s per-pupil allotment, but some people benefit, and they will demand to have their say.

      “Without Parent involvement and more teacher control over their curriculum, I don’t see how a bureaucratic system is better. ” You are absolutely right, and have the research behind you. ..but pressure from testing companies, Common Core profiteers, people who want new infrastructure to grace their communities courtesy of your children and tax money while you shoulder the loss of the same…. That pressure is not going away, and can only be countered by engaged, self-governing citizens.

      Thank you very much for your input here, and I wish you well whatever your path on this issue.

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  2. I very much want my children to stay at Katahdin. I don’t believe for one minute that if we combine they will be offered more in the way of academics and arts. I believe that is a lie. I don’t believe our superintendent cares one lick about our children or how this will impact them, teachers, and our overall community. Not sure what his aspirations are, but truth and integrity are lacking.
    Education should be inspiring kids to be lifelong learners, creative thinkers, trying new things, and to guide them towards their future endeavors.

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    • You’re right — the inevitable tendency to break promises of increased educational opportunity; the ballooning of administrative, transportation and construction costs and the erosion of civic power by Boards representing opposing interests is well documented on a local level as well as nationwide. Weren’t we promised the same with the RSU Law? How is that working out?

      Those promises are a lie, and must be called out as such. Whether the Superintendent believes it himself or not is above my pay grade certainly, and is of little consequence. There is no one to blame but himself for the trust issues.

      That last sentence should be embroidered on a pillow… Can I steal that?

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