SACO — Mainers love to talk about local control of government, taking pride in historic legacies that have defined our municipal borders for 200 years. In our hometown of Saco, where a legacy of Saco’s mill-owning days still leaves its mark on our local city politics, local control has taken on an ominous implication.

We’re talking about the “us-versus-them” mentality at the heart of Saco’s proposed withdrawal from Regional School Unit 23, which includes the towns of Old Orchard Beach and Dayton.

Watch any public hearing on the subject of withdrawal and you will hear longtime leaders in our community vilifying Old Orchard Beach as the bad guys, soaking up our tax dollars to keep their small high school open. The sentiment that “we don’t want to be in bed with Old Orchard Beach” has been expressed by Saco’s town fathers in print, on camera and in heated exchanges for the past two years.

Last year, some Saco parents worried that their children would be forced to attend Loranger Middle School in Old Orchard Beach to alleviate perceived overcrowding at Saco Middle School. The goal: Reduce classroom sizes in one school by allowing families to choose another school.

An idea that made sense from an outsider’s perspective fanned a flame of resentment. Some believed that the state and people “from away” had tried to erase 250 years of tradition.

Being “from away,” we didn’t have the same visceral reaction as many of our native Saco friends. Why wouldn’t we want to send our children to a smaller school where the opportunity for more hands-on learning and individual attention would be available? It was worth exploring.

For a community with such a long history of education, our memory is short. Saco pursued Old Orchard Beach as a partner because RSU law requires a public K-12 education option for all students.

While Thornton Academy has been educating Saco’s students for more than 150 years, the school is private, accepting public tuition money but not beholden to the same transparency and reporting structures required of public schools.

The prevailing belief was that Old Orchard Beach would close its high school and TA would absorb those 300-plus students. The sentiment that “they should just close down that high school” is still the most common reaction we hear whenever the subject of withdrawal comes up in Saco.

Debating withdrawal is a valid and worthwhile effort. Unfortunately, there has been no debate.

City leaders appointed a withdrawal committee whose members all had Thornton Academy ties. The group excluded public input, held most of its meetings in executive session with no reported outcome or minutes and then signed a 10-year, $100 million contract with TA. The agreement was not reviewed by elected officials until it was too late to make any changes.

When the financial analysis finally came out – two weeks after absentee ballots were already in circulation – the reports made assumptions that took only the best case for withdrawal and the absolute worst case for remaining in RSU 23. The real truth is that from a financial standpoint, the cost of remaining or withdrawing is really a wash.

So if it’s not about money, what is local control all about? State and federal subsidies always come with policy provisions. The textbook, curriculum development and educational testing industries all have significant influence on local schooling. We believe that calls for local control fail to acknowledge that no community has exclusive control over its schools.

After reporting on the Saco withdrawal effort for the past 18 months, we believe there are sound educational reasons for the regional school unit to stay together. If Saco is going to remain in the RSU, the cost-sharing formula needs to change. Yet this idea was never explored. City councilors and withdrawal supporters believe it better to dismantle a school district just beginning to show the fruits of consolidation, than to negotiate with their neighbors to solve problems.

The irony in all of this is that in its zeal to take back local control, elected leaders allowed city officials to obligate 30 percent of Saco’s education budget to Thornton Academy. We will have no say or oversight in how that budget is spent.

With the majority of Saco’s school budgets and programs mandated by federal and state regulations, real local control is micro-control that will have us slicing at the vulnerable components of the only part of the budget the school board and city can control: our K-8 education system. As parents of young children in this community, we see local control as daunting.

— Special to the Press Herald

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