Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport is one brave husband.
“My wife is a teacher at (Regional School Unit) 19 in Newport, teaching first grade for over 20 years,” said Fredette, the House Republican leader, at a State House news conference Wednesday. “I know that teachers like her work hard to give young children the best opportunity to succeed in Maine’s education system.”
Sandwiched between Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, Fredette was there to sing the praises of Maine’s new A-to-F grading system for public schools. He told the gathering he was “honored to be part of this momentous day for Maine’s education system.”
It was momentous, all right: Newport Elementary School, where Fredette’s wife, Cynthia, has been hard at work nurturing the minds of first-graders for two decades, got a D.
“The score reflects challenges that we have in RSU 19,” observed Rep. Fredette in an interview Thursday. “And it could be indicative of more that needs to be done to help those most in need … to improve in terms of their scores.”
Translation: Newport, along with the seven surrounding communities that make up RSU 19, is not Cape Elizabeth … or Falmouth … or Kennebunk … or any of the other affluent Maine communities that posted easy A’s in this one-letter-tells-all assessment of Maine’s many and varied school systems.
RSU 19, to be blunt, is poor – witness that well over half of the 2,200 students in its eight schools qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches. (Two schools have more than 70 percent of their students enrolled in the lunch program.)
At the same time, the district’s finances are a complicated mess – witness the $2.8 million bank loan RSU 19’s directors authorized this week to cover budget errors dating back to the 2011-12 fiscal year.
And the future? Well, as Superintendent Gregory Potter noted in an interview this week, next year’s budget contains 7.5 fewer teaching positions than this year’s.
“We’re looking for support,” said Potter, who took over the district in July. “We’re looking for help.”
Instead, RSU 19’s eight schools got four C’s, three D’s and, in the case of Somerset Valley Middle School in Hartland, the scarlet F.
“Yes, we need to improve. We need to always be looking to improve,” Potter conceded. “But I don’t think the message is positive coming out of Augusta, especially the governor’s office. And it’s really sad, because it doesn’t have to be done that way.”
No, it doesn’t. But letter grades, not unlike the governor who’s handing them out, could not be more simple.
What to do about them, on the other hand? Not so much.
Fredette, for the record, is well aware of the pervasive poverty in his neck of the woods.
“My wife tells me stories of children coming to school in the winter with no mittens on and a summer jacket,” he said. “It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but that’s part of the reality.”
Another part, Fredette said, is that even the smallest increase in property taxes to provide more funding for the schools “is a big deal to the people in that district.”
He’s not kidding: Voters in RSU 19 turned down this year’s $2.8 million “stabilization” loan not once, but twice in recent months. Facing a possible month-long shutdown of their schools if it failed again, they finally approved the loan by a 181-vote majority (out of 3,449 votes cast) in March.
Think about that: Just under half the voting public chose to shut down the schools rather than shoulder increases in local tax rates that ranged, depending on their hometown, from 18 cents to 63 cents per $1,000 of their assessed property values.
Shortsighted? Some would say so.
A sign that money is tight? No doubt.
Yet, maintains Fredette, “I don’t think (raising RSU 19’s school grades) is necessarily money-driven.”
Rather, he said, “the bottom line here is to engage the community and say, “Hey look, maybe there are some issues here.’ “
“You can barely get someone to run for the school board,” Fredette said. “And I think that, in and of itself, is a problem.”
Maybe it is, but a two-way race for the school board is hardly what’s needed to bump up RSU 19’s flagging school grades.
To do that, maintains Superintendent Potter, the district needs more math and reading specialists who can provide one-on-one interventions with kids who struggle to keep up with the curriculum … more literacy specialists to help kids who can see Jane run but can’t read about it … more hope.
“We just don’t have those resources at all,” Potter said. “Let’s be realistic in terms of what the challenges are. Every child deserves a chance and deserves a level playing field if possible. But the fact of life is, that isn’t happening.”
At the same time, slapping a school with a D or an F serves only to reinforce the obvious: Communities that can afford a Grade A school system typically end up with one. Those that can’t, don’t.
Time will tell whether the LePage administration puts its money where its mouth is and funnels much-needed financial aid to school districts now relegated, fairly or not, to the bottom of Maine’s academic barrel.
And maybe RSU 19, as Fredette suggests, can do more to help its students with the limited resources it has — starting with those millions it’s now borrowing at 3.7 percent for 10 years from a local bank.
But as we log onto our laptops and click here, there and everywhere to see how our schools match up with all the others, let’s pause and imagine what it must be like to be a dedicated teacher who learned this week that his or her school has been branded a failure — or perilously close to it.
Thursday afternoon, I called Newport Elementary School to see how the D, complete with Fredette’s full-throated endorsement, was sitting with his hardworking wife.
Cynthia Fredette cordially referred me to her higher-ups, but not before saying, “I agree with my husband.”
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: