Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 6, 2018
Islanders discuss future of schools
by Tevlin Schuetz
Over 50 Deer Isle and Stonington residents gathered at a meeting of the Future of Our Schools Committee on August 29 in the high school gymnasium.
The committee was initiated by the school administration this past spring to investigate options for school sustainment and is composed of school board members, educators, parents and community and town leaders.
FOOS Committee Chairman and CSD Board chairman Jane Osborne welcomed those in attendance before addressing a question posed by a member of the audience regarding potential closure of the high school.
“It is an option that is being considered. No decision has been made,” Osborne said.
Facilities Subcommittee Chairman and Head of Schools Lynne Witham updated the audience with progress and objectives of her committee.
Head of maintenance David Pelletier completed an updated inspection on August 20, Witham said.
A summary document shared at the meeting outlined the Facilities Subcommittee’s plans to investigate the following issues: repairs needed at both school buildings as continued use would necessitate; what effects the combining of K-12 grades in the current elementary school building would have on costs and changing requirements with respect to additional parking, septic system capacity, additional building upkeep, sizes of the gym and the industrial arts room; and what happens to the current high school building maintenance-wise based upon its continued use or lack thereof.
School Structure Subcommittee
School Structure Subcommittee Chairman Jane Osborne noted that all public input from a July FOOS meeting was recorded, and she acknowledged the various concerns shared by the community.
“There are a lot of issues,” Osborne said. “We have declining [student] population … high per-pupil costs. We have the high school building needing a tremendous amount of work. We have pressures to keep the tax burden the same or, if possible, even lower. We have a fairly significant special ed population. With a low student population, we’re unable to offer a lot of electives. … We’ve been avoiding the question: ‘Is the status quo okay?’”
A document available at the meeting described the School Structure Subcommittee’s next steps. It will collect information about regional schools, communities where schools have closed and existing K-12 schools. The criteria to be employed for comparison with the Island school system includes: the same population size; mill rate; town valuation; state subsidies; median to low income population; median home price; coastal community; student population; school budget; and geographic distance from job opportunities.
Subcommittee members are going to divvy up over a dozen school systems to contact—and visit, where appropriate—including Lubec and Limestone (which have both closed their high schools), Searsport (which has a regional high school) and Greenville, Machias and Shead, among others.
A variety of data points will be examined, including the following: population growth or decline; per-student cost; class sizes; special education numbers; teacher numbers and how many subjects they teach; teacher pay scale and insurance coverage; number of administrators and their responsibilities; community partnerships; use of long-distance learning technology; transportation time and costs; dropout rate; operational costs; and state assessment scores.
Subcommittee members will interview school board members, administrations at remaining schools, former administrators of closed schools, town managers and parents to gain a better understanding of these areas of concern: What was gained by closing the school? What was lost? Effect on community spirit? Have families moved out? Do businesses find it more difficult to recruit and retain employees? Are there unexpected impacts? Have dropout rates increased with students having to travel to other schools? Transportation time and costs? What was the process for deciding to close the school, and who made the final decision? Would they repeat that choice?
During a discussion about closing the high school, Jean Wheeler voiced an opinion which drew applause from many in the audience. “With all due respect to the hard work you are all doing, if we take as a given that the community values the school … what do we all need to do to keep it going? I would like to plead … that we take that off the table.”
Wheeler expressed concern that students having to travel—and older students having to drive—to a school as far as Bucksport, for example, would likely increase the dropout rate and would make it difficult for them to participate in after-school programs.
In a discussion of standards and student performance, Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington explained how a reduced student population affects averages with respect to testing. It takes less below-average scores to drag the overall average down in a low-enrollment school, whereas “the more kids you have, the higher to the mean [score] you go,” he said.
Elkington also addressed staffing costs, noting that around 60 percent of the CSD teaching staff are veterans, at or close to the top of the pay scale. They are not over-paid, according to Elkington, but this scenario does constitute part of the reason per-student education costs are high.
Another concern with veteran staff is filling their shoes when they are gone.
“They are going to retire. I don’t know who we are going to get to replace them,” Elkington said. “People are not going into education. … so that’s another thing added into this.”
Housing costs have been a problem, and in some cases have deterred potential applicants for staff positions, Elkington said.
Elkington also identified family structure, economic challenges and drug and alcohol abuse issues on the Island as additional obstacles.
“It’s very hard to educate a kid who maybe didn’t get a meal last night,” he said. “We’re getting hit on every side right now.”
Former teacher Peggy Zembruski voiced frustration with that assessment, adding that those problems have always existed.
“Don’t get into people’s living rooms; teach the kids,” she said, adding that the district should get a coordinator to focus concerned citizens toward volunteer work supporting the school.
School leaders also explained funding challenges.
“Right now under the funding formula we get very little money from the state,” Elkington said. “We get about 10 percent of our budget from the state. And that’s all based on property valuation.”
There is a movement afoot to bump that up to 15 percent for “minimum receivers” [schools], he added, but was unsure if that percentage would apply to a school’s total budget or whether it would be confined to what the EPS formula designates for schools.
“There aren’t a lot of options,” he said.
CSD Board member and subcommittee participant Skip Greenlaw added that subsidy is also attached to student enrollment. “In terms of help from the state, we ought not to count on very much more than we get now,” he said.
Community member and parent Bill Shepard had the final word at the meeting, ending the discussion on a positive note.
Things are improving,” he said. Shepard encouraged people to attend monthly CSD Board meetings, to stay informed and to have their voices heard.
Remaining Process and Timeline
Now through October – Facilities and School Structure subcommittees collect data needed to make recommendations.
October 3 and November 7– Public meetings at 6 p.m., at the high school.
November – FOOS Committee reviews information, formulates recommendations, writes report for school board and community.
December 4 – Report delivered to school board and community.
January/February 2019 – Public information sessions to discuss recommendations.
March 4, 2019 – Public referendum to choose option for school going forward.
2019 through 2021 – Implementation of chosen option (Length of time will depend on option chosen and the amount of work needed to implement well).
The next Future of Our Schools Committee meeting will be held in the high school gym on Wednesday, October 3, at 6 p.m.