Albanese addresses cuts at meeting with school leaders, parents in Dexter
By Diana Bowley, Of the NEWS Staff - DEXTER - Program needs, declining enrollments and money woes are three forces driving Maine schools toward consolidation and regionalization, a group of school officials was told Wednesday. J. Duke Albanese, outgoing commissioner of education, said that a continued trend of declining enrollments, coupled with less revenue, means communities must look toward consolidation or regionalization, in order to provide the quality programs all children need to meet Maine's Learning Results.
Recognizing the uneasiness among school officials and the public about such moves, Albanese said such discussions must be community-generated. "There is no grand plan; there is no set notion of the way things should be." There is no grand scheme to eliminate a lot of schools, but, he added, Maine is going to have a difficult time sustaining 285 school districts.
As an incentive for school districts to find ways to consolidate educational efforts, Gov. John Baldacci has set aside $5 million in his second-year budget. Although the criteria for the distribution of this pot have not yet been established, it will be given to school districts that can demonstrate cost savings, according to Albanese.
The state official reminded school officials from SADs 4, 41, 68, 46, Foxcroft Academy, Union 60, and the Tri-County Technical Center, and a few local residents, that consolidation was not a new word. He said school administrative districts did not exist in the 1950s. But, because of the need to pool resources to provide better programming, communities gave up their local schools to join others and benefited.
Some local communities moved consolidation one step further by closing outlying elementary schools in recent years. That move stills angers some.
"You're killing this part of the state with your regionalization," said Rick Johnston of Charleston, an SAD 68 board member. The state is pushing economic development efforts, yet it closed Charleston Elementary School, a very vital part of that community, he said. The first thing people ask before buying a home in a new community is "Does it have an elementary school?" he noted.
Beth Jordan, a Charleston parent, also vented her frustrations about the Charleston school closing. "Why close schools that are working in an effort to regionalize or consolidate?" she asked. She said test scores of the local children were "awesome." She suggested that consolidation efforts be focused on administration.
That also was a suggestion from Rep. James Tobin of Dexter. He asked Albanese if there was any thought given to a regional administrative effort, for example, having one superintendent serve all the school districts in a region.
Wednesday's meeting was sparked by Dexter Middle School's placement on the State Board of Education's Special Priority List for new construction or major renovation. Under new state statutes, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education must fully evaluate regional consolidation before considering a local school project.
Greenville Town Manager John Simko reminded Albanese and those State Education Board members in attendance that consolidation may be an option in urban communities in counties such as Cumberland, but a similar move would be difficult in rural communities like Greenville in Piscataquis County, where the closest school outside the town is a 30-minute drive away.
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