Notes on the Task Force…

sheep and donkey

“…they could look at a bowl of cherries and see nothing but pits…” ~Marty Strange, on the negative view of consolidation proponents toward small schools.

…an apt description of the negativity toward RSU 50’s schools for their size that permeated last Monday’s “Community Meeting”.  (A compelling essay by Mr. Strange, and other works by top researchers on school consolidation can be found in Great Plains Research Volume 23 No. 2   Abstracts are available here, and I just submitted a full copy to the Sherman Public Library yesterday).

Back to last Monday’s meeting.  I know many of you have asked for this and I’m sorry I took so long with my “homework”  At the beginning, Mrs. Hill expressed a very valid concern at the way in which meetings like this one are announced.  They should be on AlertNow.  I share her belief that people should be as informed as possible, and in a consistent way.  I also want to thank her, too, for welcoming my voice in this debate though I have no vote and likely disagree.

“If you want to know what’s going on you have to come to the meetings.!” ~Chairman Greg Ryan,  “We announce the next meetings at the meetings….”

I disagree.  People have a right to know what is going on whether they are able to attend meetings or not.  That is why we read newspapers rather than go, say, to the State gHouse….. It was suggested to a number of us some time ago that we record/video/mp4 -whatever, meetings and share them.  I lack the technological capability!  Tech-savvy readers?

It is difficult to attend, certainly.  I would have preferred to be at home with my family; on a rare night off for such a hardworking husband.  Anyway:

How did the meeting become so heated so quickly?

It all started innocently enough.  I asked Craig Kesselheim to clarify references to Searsport High School in the FTF report.  In it, the FTF asserts that Searsport’s size relative to Belfast and philosophical uniqueness should bar its closure.  It brought to mind, for me, another instance where that very same argument was used by then-Commissioner Susan Gendron to justify closure of Benedicta’s school.  Such value judgements run throughout the FTF’s “unbiased” analysis.  Many surrounding Katahdin look to Searsport as  a model to emulate for good reason.  I did not share a letter from a friend there; I didn’t have time, as the Board was busy  shutting down discussion for which they were unprepared, but here it is now:

“…Searsport High School has worked hard at coming back from losing their accreditation in the 90’s and has been working towards becoming a STEM school. The program is so popular and successful here that schools in Maine, New England and beyond have visited our campus and talked with teachers and students for advice and direction. The superintendent said more schools needed to close and he had Searsport High School on the chopping block even though our test scores were higher than Belfast and even though we are so close to becoming a STEM school. He wanted to move us into a school that is too small and falling apart, while our school is newer with modern improvements and state of the art lab, etc. If we moved to Belfast, we would have had to use modular classrooms as the school isn’t big enough to accommodate us. That was Belfast’s way of being able to say to the state they need a new school sooner rather than later. Basically it boils down to our communities wanting local control of our school tax dollars and control over keeping the momentum going with creating a STEM school..”


Our readers will likely see parallels in our own RSU.

The preference for large schools  underlied the discussion, and the Board’s position was clear, that schools of Katahdin’s size are inviable:

“…The criticism that smaller schools cannot offer as broad a program of studies as can larger schools has been around for a very long time; it is often used as a justification for closing smaller schools. Educational authorities, pursuing an agenda of school consolidation, point out the obvious: larger schools can offer a wider range of programs and more courses than can smaller schools. “Therefore, goes the argument, operating small schools with more limited curricula is unfair to the students who attend them” (Cotton, 1996).
“While this has a certain common sense appeal, examination of the research reveals that there simply is no reliable relationship between school size and curriculum quality. 

“Even the smallest schools (100-200 students) are able to offer core curricula comparable to schools of more than 1,200….” ~Jack and the Giant School, by Stacy Mitchell

Mrs. Robinson astutely pointed out how slight even the FTF’s own predictions are regarding more offerings saying, “I expected more”.

“..researchers have found that “it takes a lot of bigness to add a little variety – that is, on average, a 100% increase in enrollment yields only a 17% increase in variety of offerings…”  Education on a Human Scale

The FTF offers no evidence to support even these modest, predicted gains, and even they may be overly optimistic when applied to  RSU #50.  These figures do not account for the demands that increased transportation, construction, State subsidy uncertainties or taxpayer support will undoubtedly make on any savings.

The Board admitted what readers of Timbered Classrooms have known for some time:  that a new school is, indeed their first choice of scenarios.  Though it did not admit the myriad of ways pursuit of new construction in lieu of innovating; optimizing our small schools’ potential shortchanges kids in their care today, we can extrapolate a certain degree of callousness from  the Board’s willingness to yank $20,000 from the classroom to “study” this,using only data provided by the Superintendent.  Why did they need Great Schools Partnership then?  Save 20  grand and do this work yourself!  You’re all adults….  When asked for evidence,  “We haven’t done that yet” protested Greg Ryan, but further discussion descended into one, unequivicol conclusion:  Minds are already made up.

“Educational authorities, convinced that they were right, intimidated and informed parents that if they wished their children to have a quality education, they had to agree to close their small community school and have their children bused to a larger school in a distant community. No additional evidence was necessary (Howley and Eckman, 1997; Truscott and Truscott, 2005, Theobald, 2005; Meier, 2002).”

“For many educational authorities there was no need for research to support this view. Most administrators and policy makers during this time period increasingly drew their educational models and metaphors from business and industry. Notions of economies of scale and the “cult of efficiency” (Callahan, 1964) provided all the “proof” needed to justify the consolidation and closure of small schools. For many it was simply a matter of common sense: if bigger factories are more productive than smaller ones then bigger schools must be better than smaller schools.”

I hope that the people of the RSU #50 communities will soon demand evidence to support the path their Board is aggressively pursuing:

“…Those who say small schools are not “efficient,” or effective, need to cite the evidence, not just the rhetoric. …” ~Size Matters

Such careful, critical analysis is long overdue, and it is surely the responsibility of Board members to engage, actively and independently throughout their terms:

“…I suggest that potential candidates for school board should be required to visit exemplary schools in Maine and elsewhere before announcing their candidacy. They should be asked to share with the electorate their vision of excellent schools and their ideas for how to help schools achieve that vision. They should be required to demonstrate an informed engagement with topics in the national educational dialogue….” ~Kathreen Harrison School Board Candidates Should Show Serious Engagement

Though a stack of research/empirical evidence sat in my knitting bag, consolidation proponents — with none at all, accused those of us who see value in small schools of “being emotional”, “negative” and unable to get along with others.  (Actually, we embrace sharing – real, universally beneficial sharing.)  Not surprisingly, no one showed any interest in evidence:

.  “…don’t bother me with the facts, I have made up my mind” applied to educational decision making. It is hard not to conclude that those who still insist that bigger schools are better schools are simply not interested in the evidence to the contrary…” Education on a Human Scale

I came to this issue in 2004, inclined to believe consolidation saved money and offered opportunity, and did not have children in school when Commissioner Gendron came after Benedicta Elementary.  I got involved, only because she had refused to answer any of my neighbors’ letters — I just asked her , politely, of course, to answer them as they were becoming increasingly upset.  Thus began a lengthy, spirited-yet-civil correspondence, as I pursued the research with an open mind; determined to go where the evidence led.  I was surprised by how decisive it was!  …as surprised as researchers themselves:

“…the advantages of smaller schools have been established with a clarity and confidence rare in the annuls of education (Raywid 2000)

The Commissioner and I would never agree, and some views she held on equity for rural children I found difficult to respect.  She always engaged, though, even coming to Benedicta several times under contentious circumstances and I do respect and appreciate that.  Perhaps more now as this Board is disinclined to do likewise.

The contrast between the former Commissioner and the behavior of this Board toward Timbered Classrooms, certain employees and me could not be more stark.

But it should not be surprising:

“…It’s an unfortunate, but fairly common reality that intimidation and personal slurs are used against people fighting consolidation. Sometimes teachers or administrators have their jobs, or the jobs of family members, subtly threatened. Sometimes rumors are spread locally. It’s not uncommon for pro-consolidation media outlets to portray community advocates of small schools in unflattering ways, to use derogatory rural stereotypes, and to misrepresent the legitimate concerns of rural residents and parents as self-interest, commitment to local athletic teams, or ignorance of and disregard for what’s best for their own children….” ~Anything But Research Based

Phil Knowles was right about one thing:  (no, this is not a typo, and it WAS only one thing:  Education cannot be run like a business.

We have to remember, education is education, a humane and human process. It is not competition or production. It is not a business, and business leaders really don’t know much about it. Education is not their area of expertise…. Not a Business

He went on to express openness to scenarios that, “…throw my kids under the bus…” because Southern Aroostook is closer to Region II and would afford those kids the opportunity to return in time for another class.

This is why Regional  Boards are so problematic.  Why on Earth would you throw ANY child “under the bus” EVER?  This is exactly the type of thought processes that occur in a Board that is too far removed from the kids.  They begin to think in terms of averages and lose sight of the preciousness of every single child.

A child is not a “regional unit”, is not “scaleable” and none of them are “average”.  The Board could create and empower separate committees to see to individualize decision making:  Pearls of Wisdom From out Coastal Cousins

Back to “Proximity to Southern Aroostook…”.  It’s an argument we have heard over and over and over, and one more often used to justify closure.     Do you know what else is “proximate to Region II”?  Houlton.  If busing is so benign, then, why not close SACS?  The distance is less than what you are asking Katahdin’s children to endure.  Why does the harm of busing matter more or less depending on who is in the seat if “all children matter equally”?

Claims that the desired “new school” will remain small, and retain all of the benefits of small schools is used to discredit the research offered here.  READ: “…too small to benefit from scale…”  In a few words, Larry sweepingly dismissed every item of research presented here and beyond, “They’re not talking about us….” — the height of absurdity in a decidedly farcical evening.

They are correct, though, and will likely be smaller than anyone may think.  …too small to offer the benefits touted by the Board.  Do we have reason to believe that precipitous enrollment declines will NOT continue unabated?    Though I believe in public education, and find “shopping” for schools in a “market” abhorrent, I am doing just that and am not alone.  The Superintendent referenced the difficulty in attracting and retaining good teachers.  The only reason I do not home school, is the relationships children form with wonderful teachers.  If they will not choose RSU #50, then why should I for our children?  Has anyone on the Board spoken with good teachers who would not submit a resume?  I have.  Like many problems in the RSU, size isn’t the issue.  Further, as research shows that taxpayer support diminishes with distance in consolidations, interest in changing the cost-sharing formula to a per-pupil one will likely grow and that budgets will become even more difficult to pass.

At the moment, our small schools are being run by people seeking to prove their inferiority, as is reflected by budget priorities toward “Bureaucrats and Wardens” which does not bode well to realizing their full potential.

I’ve always thought it odd that school size was treated as a choice — it isn’t always.    Children in your care are not going to wait for you to “decide” whether to pursue “bigness” OR innovate as quality small schools do.  Policymakers have a responsibility to do the latter, though we all know it conflicts directly with their efforts toward the former.

The Board would do well to remember, that,  they have no choice — they are running small schools at the moment, and their negativity toward them amounts to an admission that children are being shortchanged now – and unnecessarily according to research and to residents who believe the budget is sufficient to improve education for kids if spent differently.

“…Research also suggests that impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts, and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs….”Beware the Oversimplifiers

The communities have a decision to make, here, and I do wish them well.  The Board made theirs long ago.


9 responses to “Notes on the Task Force…

  1. Greg Ryan is soooooooo contradicting when he tells people to attend board meetings stating that that is where they will discuss the consolidation issue, etc. Isn’t it correct that citizens only speak during ‘citizen time” and then they only state their concerns and there is no conversation or communication with the board or anyone? Then they hold “public/community meetings” and are rude to people who want to ask questions and discuss and they are shut down. Why would people want to put themselves through that humiliation? The public meeting environment would seem the place to discuss with the public? Citizens are not being treated respectfully by this board and Mr. Malone. Then they wonder why there are only a handful of citizens in attendance? Also, we have elected these board members to REPRESENT the citizens of their town. We trust that they are attending the meetings and making decisions on our behalf. We should not have to attend board meetings to be informed and we don’t have any say in that venue. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that this board will be making some of the most important educational decisions in my children’s education in the near future and I don’t feel confident in this.

    We need to remember that small schools thrive. Research states how children benefit from small school settings. Our children will not have a huge benefit in opportunity or curriculum, etc. by consolidating with SACHS. By increasing class size by a few students (as Mr. Kesselheim’s report shows), the benefits are minimal. There are many ways that we can continue to “share” education and work with a smaller budget in the rsu without moving our kids to one end of the district or the other. K-12 in the KMHS building is the most logical answer!


    • That we do not have reliable, hard-questioning press coverage in our area is a terrible disservice to the people of these communities. Serious journalists play a vital role, and busy people rightly rely on them to be informed WITHOUT attending every meeting. The attitude of this Board and Administration toward the public is a reflection of that need.

      Know what people fear most generally? Public speaking. “Death” was #7. Speakers are met either by catatonic stares even if they pose a question or pearl-clutching gasps at the impertinance of anyone who would dare speak to them as an EQUAL??? …..or raise a topic they do not want to discuss. When will they learn they are not entitled to control discussion, or the narrative more broadly?

      The most common critique of the so-called “public forums” is how tightly-controlled they were. ….limited to leading questions aimed at a certain conclusion. If they were serious about having no bias, or pre-conceived outcome in mind, then, they should WANT to hear all sides. They would want to read, Dollars and Sense that specifically recommends renovation over construction and expanding grade levels rather than trying to expand numbers in existing grades. They would want to read Kathreen Harrison’s piece on the relative effects on the tender middle school-aged children in elementary vs. stand-alone middle schools.

      But they don’t. Board members have told me that they have been instructed not to read Timbered Classrooms and too many will only consider information filtered through the Superintendent, who was hired to close Katahdin to draw investment into the other communities in the district. They have had their answer, I’m told, for 25 years. That’s how far back the desire for a new school goes for some. The RSU model affords a means to use Katahdin’s children and resources to fund, fill and justify new construction. “What do you know about building a new school?” The superintendent himself said, publicly that this was an interview question when he was hired.

      They are avoiding open debate. If the assumption that Katahdin’s closure is the inevitable result of its size, rather than questionable Board choices…. They mentioned a desire for “consensus”. The budget process shows they lack the public’s trust to do this. When the Superintendent said that the second budget would have been devastating for kids, how many would take him at his word? Mrs. Bishevsky said on channel 8 that “…there is enough money in the budget to improve education…”

      We need someone who knows how to run small schools effectively. Even people who want a new school should agree to that in the interim; to be more attentive to the children who are now being educated in small schools.


  2. Thank you, Lisa, for all of the work you are doing on our behalf! We need the information you provide to keep us informed and aware.


    • It is not right when people want to speak, and are treated rudely because they disagree. Whatever happened to listening respectfully to people’s opinions. K-12 at Katahdin High would solve their issue.


      • I don’t mind for myself – they can think and say what they like about me, though I am grateful to Mrs. Hill for standing up for my right to speak though I do not have a vote. But it does silence other voices, and that is wrong whether they agree with me or not. That is one reason Timbered Classrooms was born – to give people a safe place to express views – that benefits all of us to know.

        By the way, those polls/surveys Craig Kesselheim took? Have you ever seen them? Have the results been made public? Whatever they say, the public shoud have access. They paid dearly for them.


    • You’re welcome. For me, it is no different than the sort of volunteering I do be it chaperoning field trips, baking cookies etc. I wish it wasn’t necessary but I am happy to do what I can.


  3. Let’s bring attention to the fact that the superintendent of East Millinocket has resigned – his salary around $62,000 – Larry Malone’s salary around $109,000!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!?????????????? And there was no cutting the budget to administration – “Ed Techs will be cut first,” states Larry Malone at the budget meeting in Island Falls!!!!!!!!!!??????? And we are allowing this to go on????????


    • Yes! It is utterly unjustifiable, as are other expenditures to aid the Superintendent’s office on top of it – $20k to Great Schools Partnership is but one of those.

      The Board spoke of trying to “…get to EPS…” in terms of faculty (not what the EPS is for, but…). Really? This Board has blown EPS out of the water for administrative costs without so much as a bleat.

      …money better invested in kids.

      I have seen discussions about this on folks’ personal FB pages, “Oh they’re contractually obligated etc.etc. The budget process reminded us that the people are not “contractually obligated” to vote to give the Board the money it “contractually obligates” away.

      It’s an issue of trust.


  4. Reblogged this on Timbered Classrooms… and commented:

    Timbered Classrooms hopes that the background information on the path of the Task Force leading up to tonight’s meeting will be helpful to our readers…. Thank you for your interest!


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