Monday, January 26, 2009

Yes, We Can: Locally as Well as Nationally


While our country is standing at the threshold of great change this week, those of us born and raised along the New England coast have never been very comfortable with it. We’re stubborn Yankees, descendents, as the journalist Colin Woodward noted in his fine history, The Lobster Coast, of fierce Anglo and French stock. Not only do we not like change: the desire to actively FIGHT it seems embedded deep in our genes.

While fiercely sustaining our unique island culture and traditions is critical, resistance to change can also hurt us and limit our future prospects, most especially when it comes to educating our children.

As world change happens ever more quickly—including in our fishing industries—spurred on by technologies that make once complicated functions possible in mere seconds, the requirements for and demands made on each new generation of students change exponentially. Meeting these needs requires vision and the ability to take risks. Yet instead of leading necessary changes to our schools so our students can compete equally, and succeed, we’re being asked by local school leadership to resist such change.

The biggest change at stake, in a vote on January 27, is school consolidation: whether or not to bring together our small area schools under a larger umbrella, to ensure their survival and ability to provide the resources our students need for a 21st century education.

The benefits of a consolidated rural school district are uncontestable and are currently being realized throughout the small coastal towns in Regional School Unit (RSU) #1 around Bath where, in the first year of consolidation, they have saved over $1.2 million AND added quality to their school program (in the form of additional AP classes at their high school, foreign language at elementary level, etc.—the very things our current structure is lacking). Consolidated rural school districts allow small schools like ours to align schedules; professional development; teaching resources and specialists; curricula; and purchasing and other contract negotiations to keep our small schools alive and thriving. While there are short-term costs to making such changes, the long term savings and benefits are much more important.

Perhaps the most misunderstood component of consolidation is its focus. This is not about closing schools: in fact, the island will be able to strengthen our position by becoming part of the larger district. The focus of consolidation is administration, not buildings. By mandating larger administrative districts, consolidation shifts the focus of control, and costs, away from superintendents and unwieldy numbers of school governing boards, meetings, and disparate contracts, correctly recognizing that true “local control” resides in strong principals in the buildings themselves, as well as active parent-teacher organizations. Consolidation is not about losing our local schools, or control; it is about preserving and improving them.

Students around the country and, increasingly, around Maine, from Bath to Ellsworth and beyond, benefit from consolidated educational structures. Our own students are benefitting immeasurably from the consolidation of the Deer Isle and Stonington elementary schools, another bitterly fought change more than 15 years in the making. Let’s hope it doesn’t take us 15 more years, plus state penalties and further mandates, to take this next necessary step to improve local education.

It’s just plain sad that our local educational leadership has chosen to discuss and plan only for the short term costs of consolidation, rather than the more important educational improvements and long term financial savings. Not surprisingly, those mounting the strongest opposition are those whose roles will be most directly changed in a regional school district: the superintendent and school committee members.

The state law mandating consolidation—similar to the state law mandating the creation of the Stonington Sanitary District in the 1980s, also opposed by local voters—is not perfect. The consolidation plan brought to us by our existing school committees, for an Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS), is so badly put together, taking advantage of few of the benefits offered by RSU’s, it only makes clear they want consolidation to fail.

That leaves making this necessary change up to us, the voters. Even though the current proposals are imperfect, we must vote YES—for the sake of our students and the future of our communities—to keep this critical process moving forward. The existing structure is broken and will not survive the economic and educational demands of the 21st century. We can’t afford to drag our feet on this issue. We owe it to our children.

On January 27, vote for a new and improved future for our students and our communities. Vote YES for school consolidation.

Written from my perspective as an active volunteer, mentor, and teacher in the Deer Isle-Stonington schools, who helped to draft and pass the schools’ Strategic Plan.