Brighter future

with withdrawal

On Nov. 4, Freeport voters will have a unique opportunity to decide the future of our schools. We are at a fork in the road, with three options to consider: 1: Freeport stays in RSU 5 and keeps the status quo; 2: Freeport stays in RSU 5 and starts using its majority vote to push initiatives – and budgets – through; and 3: Freeport withdraws from RSU 5.

Option 1: Freeport stays in RSU 5 and keeps the status quo:

Over the past five years, it has become clear that Durham, Freeport and Pownal have different priorities when it comes to funding education. The voting record shows starkly that Freeport is ready to support educational initiatives while Durham and Pownal are not. These differences have become so pronounced that they interfere with the work of the RSU5 Board of Directors.

In an effort to garner support for the budget and for school bonds ?(which have been voted down by Durham and Pownal almost every time since 2010 – Durham approved the school budget in 2012), the board spends a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to make the RSU structure work and, as a result, important conversations about how to make our schools better places to learn in, and to work in, are crowded out. When drafting budgets, impact on the taxpayer comes first: Vital programs that could benefit students greatly are considered based on cost, and essential investments in our kids› education are often left out of RSU 5 budgets. For fear of “no” votes at the ballot box, RSU 5 schools have been subject to chronic under-funding that has resulted in a gradual trimming of staff and services.

RSU 5 lags behind neighboring districts in programmatic offerings and in teacher pay. We are not setting funds aside for capital improvements. Our reserve fund is severely underfunded and we basically operate hand-to-mouth. We are not making adequate investments in technology. We have cut in-class help for teachers, while simultaneously asking them to differentiate instruction and to deliver content in multiple ways. Schools (such as Morse Street School) that used to have two full-time literacy strategists prior to consolidation now share three such experts with the district’s six schools. At the high school, teachers now carry a load of six classes compared to the five classes they were required to teach in the pre-RSU days. These are just examples of a larger story.

Since the inception of the RSU, funding for some programs has shrunk in order to pay for new or extended services in others. Most people haven’t noticed the gradual cuts because our teachers have been very flexible and, for the most part, they have been able to adjust by working harder. If done well, creating efficiencies is a positive development in organizations. In the case of RSU 5, however, the trimming has gone too far and we‘re now starting to see the negative effects of these subtle cuts. Most worryingly, students and teachers are starting to leave our district.

In the case of students, our district has lost approximately 120 (about 6.5 percent) pupils in the last two years. Freeport families are disproportionately showing their discontent by sending their children to other schools. Since we consolidated in 2009, Freeport’s total enrollment has dropped from 66 percent to 60 percent. At Freeport High School there are 40 fewer Freeport students today than there were prior to consolidation (13 percent drop) and 20 percent of Freeport’s eighth-graders do not matriculate at our high school. It is bad enough that our schools are losing talented students and dedicated parents. To make it worse, for every student who leaves our district, there is a revenue loss that hits our bottom line.

In the past, public schools were largely immune to competition. Over the last few years, though, the landscape of public education has changed. Public schools today compete with private, charter and other public schools for students. Parents no longer have to be wealthy to send their kids elsewhere. If a family is dissatisfied with the quality of education in its local schools, there are options available to them that are funded, by law, by the sending district. Those other options, which include charter school tuition and superintendent agreements, are free to the family but very costly to our district (for example, the annual cost to RSU 5 of a charter student varies between $8,500 and $17,900). We need to stay competitive, retain students and avoid loss of revenue and additional expense.

Teacher retention is equally important. Districts invest in their teachers by providing professional development opportunities. Good teacher training is essential to providing meaningful educational experiences to students, but it is not cheap. When teachers leave, all that expensive training walks out the door with them. Generally speaking, the more qualified the teacher, the more opportunities available to them – and the greater the loss if they decide to take their experience elsewhere. Competition for good teachers is strong in southern Maine. In the last year I have seen many of our most experienced educators leave our district in search of better pay and better working conditions (smaller class size, more in-class support, more professional development opportunities, more strategists to help with struggling learners, etc.). These departures are a drain to our system and carry a high price.

While our schools suffer, and despite the board’s efforts to foster cooperation and mutual respect, tension between Freeport and the other RSU communities is growing.

If we stay in the RSU and keep the status quo, we will continue to compromise and under-fund our schools. We will become increasingly uncompetitive. The outflow of students and teachers will increase, and relations with our neighbors will continue to deteriorate.

Option 2: Freeport stays in RSU 5 and uses its majority to overpower Durham and Pownal “no” votes:

Some have suggested that a better alternative to withdrawal is for Freeport to stay in the RSU and use its majority representation on the board, and its voting power at the annual budget meeting and in the ballot box, to push initiatives through. If we do that, however, we will create even greater strife and animosity with our neighbors, and we won’t be able to operate our schools effectively.

Running a school (like any business) requires a tremendous amount of follow-through. Setting funding priorities is a long process, which results from day-to-day involvement. To suggest that this work can be done by citizens at an annual meeting is simplistic at best. Similarly, asking Freeport board members to shut out their fellow Durham and Pownal members from the conversation, stare them in the face and ram votes through against their wishes is a recipe for enormous tension, dysfunctionality and ultimately, failure. In the current RSU structure, every single Freeport board member has to be willing to adopt this aggressive stance in order to reach majority and push initiatives through. That is a very high threshold. Proponents of overpowering our neighbors, therefore, should not take the success of this approach for granted.

Option 3: Freeport votes to withdraw from RSU 5:

In addition to avoiding the struggles outlined in options 1 and 2, there are other tangible benefits to Freeport going it alone. For example, on the financial side, there are many savings that can be captured, including:

• The town and schools can cooperate on capital investments, communication systems, technology, transportation, etc.

• Cooperation with other area schools can result in educational opportunities for our students at a shared cost.

• Borrowing rates will be lower if school projects can use Freeport’s bond rating, which is better than RSU 5’s.

• School Central Office staffing can be reduced.

• Money can be saved if our investment in our teachers isn’t lost when they leave.

• Savings can be captured if we stop the outflow of students from our schools.

• Fairer funding will result in savings for Freeport taxpayers. Currently, Freeport funds 72 percent of the additional local monies (ALM) of RSU 5’s $27.5 million budget*, even though it sends only 60.1 percent of students to the district’s schools. Freeport also pays for 72 percent of the special education ALM portion of the budget ($3.6 million), but only about 50 percent of Freeport’s students receive special education services (the Withdrawal Agreement stipulates that Durham and Pownal shall pay 100 percent of special education services delivered to their students).

Capitalizing on these and other potential savings and synergies will allow Freeport to make the modest improvements needed to keep our schools competitive, and to retain our students and our teachers.

If we withdraw, we return to what is familiar to us: Local control of our schools, and the ability to choose how to run our district. We can renovate our schools while bringing back the mutual civility and respect that we used to share with Pownal and Durham. A brighter future lies ahead – if we withdraw.

In closing, I’d like to share sentiments often voiced by fellow Freeporters and add my own voice to theirs: We want schools where our children can achieve their potential; we want schools where teachers can make a decent wage; we want a school community that pulls together, not apart; we want control of our budget and of the future of our school; and, we want to have good relations with our neighbors.

Fellow Freeport voters, I urge you:

Believe in Freeport, have faith in Freeport and vote yes to withdraw on Nov 4.

*Even though the Reorganization Plan for Consolidation (RPC formula) stipulates that Freeport pay for 65.98 percent of the ALM, Freeport’s actual ALM contribution for 2013-14 and 2014-15 hovers around 72 percent. This figure is based on calculations made by Freeport’s finance director.

Valy Steverlynck

Freeport

(Steverlynck represents Freeport on the RSU 5 Board. There are his personal views, which may or may not be shared by other members of the RSU5 board)


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