Ad hoc group gets a warm welcome in first outing

Belfast’s ‘think tank’ enters a crowded school debate

Seven of eight towns ‘represented’ in informal brainstorming session
Fri, 12/13/2013 - 11:45pm

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131 Church Street
Belfast, ME 04915
United States

    BELFAST - Residents of Regional School Unit 20’s eight towns could be forgiven for not knowing where to look these days. Discussion by district administrators of consolidation within the school district has been lurching forward in fits and starts since plans were put forward in November.

    At the same time, six municipalities are considering withdrawal from RSU 20 in what may or may not be a repeat of a prior unsuccessful bid. The Belfast City Council has set aside money for its own study of various options including possibly being a standalone school district, and a members of each of these groups has come out publicly with personal opinions on what ought to happen next.

    It’s a crowded field. What purpose could one more committee serve?

    Enter the “think tank” a nine-member panel of citizens from RSU 20 towns, picked by Belfast officials to brainstorm on a wide range of issues at the thorny intersection of money and education.

    The group convened for the first time, Dec. 12. And though the live audience was small (the meeting was also televised) and the make-up of the “think tank” quirky enough to invite criticism, the three-hour session ended with numerous comments that almost unanimously showed a feeling long absent from the education debate: optimism.

    Who’s in the think tank, and why them?

    The quasi-governmental nature of the think tank and the mystery of its membership prompted some concerned comments before the meeting. In response to a notice posted by Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley on Facebook, several residents replied with concerns about being excluded from the discussion. Hurley derided what he saw as “complaining.” There was nothing stopping anyone else from forming a discussion group as he had done, he said.

    Belfast city attorney Kristin Collins, who moderated the forum on Thursday, said the think tank idea was based on an invite-only forum organized by Hurley last month. The idea of those events was to get a fresh perspective on the options at hand by asking people with some experience relevant to the topic. Along the way, the conversation might spark some new ideas for the beleaguered district.

    The think tank was constructed the same way, except the participants were chosen based on recommendations from Belfast’s RSU 20 withdrawal committee and City Council.

    “The people that are at this table are no formal representation of anything,” Collins said at the beginning of the meeting Thursday, “just some people that came to mind for [Belfast] councilors or withdrawal committee members”

    The group has no legislative authority — Collins said the discussion could end up being used by anyone working on school district issues — but with appointments made by city officials and a forum facilitated by the city attorney, the think tank couldn’t be said to be any group of people either.

    The criteria for membership also seemed to initially puzzle some who attended Thursday night’s meeting as observers.

    Stockton Springs Selectwoman Lesley Cosmano declined an on-the-spot invitation by Collins to join the group as a voice from her town. “I’m not qualified,” she said.

    Jeff Davis of Stockton Springs was subsequently recruited from the audience, but not without some confusion as to what his role would be. Davis protested that he couldn’t represent Stockton Springs beyond the 2.4 acres he owns on Cape Jellison Road.

    Collins assured him that the members of the think tank were not chosen to represent a particular town or interest group, at which point he agreed to take a seat at the table.

    Members of the think tank: Morrill Selectman and withdrawal committee member Randy Place, Belfast withdrawal committee member Wayne Corey, Belmont resident Gene Newton, former Belfast City Councilor Larry Theye, Stockton Springs resident Jeff Davis, Northport resident Sandy Wallace, former SAD 34 superintendent and Searsmont withdrawal committee chairwoman Carol Robbins, former SAD 34/RSU 20 superintendent and Swanville resident Bruce Mailloux, and Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley.  

    Collins said Searsport Town Manager James Gillway was invited but was unable to come due to a conflicting obligation. At least one resident of Searsport was present in the audience, but no one from the town was tapped to sit on the panel.

    Beyond their professional and government affiliations, members listed children or grandchildren in the district, property ownership and in one case a spouse teaching in the district as reasons for participating.

    The conversation

    The agenda, drafted by Collins, posed general questions including the pros and cons of the current RSU 20 structure, long-term educational needs of the area (a topic with numerous subsections), long-term goals for RSU 20 if it should stay intact, how current consolidation and withdrawal proposals will affect each community, other options for educational structures and ideas for reducing the cost of eduction while ensuring quality.

    At the end of the session, Collins opened the floor to the small audience, which included a half dozen current and past RSU 20 board members and another 10 citizens from district towns.

    Several points drew strong reactions from the group, including the idea that “cultural differences” between former SAD 34 and 56 schools would be difficult to overcome. The phrase has come up in various public forums and was echoed in a section of Collins’ agenda for the think tank.

    Sandy Wallace said she thought more of philosophical differences in the schools’ approach to education. Newton dismissed the idea that people who grew up within a 30-40 mile radius would have cultural differences. Davis called the term a “political contrivance” and also rejected the idea, advanced in some debates, that the Passagassawakeag River is a political boundary.

    He and many others in the group favored combining the secondary schools. Students in the transitional years might need some extra consideration, he said, but the combined school would work in time.

    Hurley agreed and compared it to racial integration. “The way they dealt with segregation was they just rammed them together and said you’ll have to deal with it when you get there.” 

    There was no mention of Vikings and Lions.

    The bottom line (viewed from below)

    Participants took divergent views of the RSU structure. Carol Robbins pointed out that the district went no further in consolidating than was required by the state.

    “I think if you closed your eyes and didn’t know it was RSU 20, you could look at Searsport and Stockton Springs and say, ‘That’s SAD 56, and the other side is SAD 34,’” she said.

    Bruce Mailloux was among several participants to throw barbs at Augusta. He defended local school officials noting that budgets have remained relatively flat from year to year, while state aid has decreased. “It’s not the cost of the schools. It’s the state shifting costs to the local level,” he said. 

    Mike Hurley noted what he saw as the conspicuous absence of state representatives at any school district meetings, and Mailloux joked darkly that revenue from the lottery system was sold to the public on grounds that it would go toward education, “just long enough to get it in the general fund.”

    Gene Newton directed some of the blame back at local administrators for using temporary infusions of federal stimulus money to restore programs that would later need to be cut. “When you know that $500,000 of the money you have coming in isn’t going to be there the year after, why aren’t you making systematic cuts ...?” he said. The answer in his opinion was that it was an attempt to “maximize what you could get from taxpayers during those times.” 

    Newton also questioned Mailloux flat-budget claim, noting that the reported 20-percent drop in enrollment over the past five years would have the effect of higher per-student costs.

    Asked on Friday about the same issue, RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said increases in health insurance premiums, the price of oil and other commodities and unanticipated expenses like the shift of a portion of teacher retirement costs to the local level have kept the budget level, even as enrollment has declined.

    Teachers are money in the bank

    A discussion about the long–term goals for the RSU drifted quickly to money. Mailloux noted that teacher salaries and benefits constitute around 80-percent of the district’s budget. Wayne Corey noted the disparity between compensation packages for some senior teachers totaling $80,000 and the roughly $25,000 average salary of workers in Waldo County.

    Mailloux defended teacher compensation based on the professional qualifications needed for the job, but also felt that the district should offer early retirement incentives to the most senior, and typically highest paid, teachers. These teachers are protected from staff cuts under the contract with the district which uses a Reduction In Force system, sometimes shorthanded as “last hired, first fired.”

    Randy Place asked Mailloux if there were programs he believed could be cut. Mailloux said there were but citizens would likely turn out to have them restored.

    Robbins urged members to keep their “eyes on the prize,” namely quality education. Wayne Corey suggested that the goal should be to figure out how to lighten the property tax burden while keeping the best possible education for students.

    The Camden model

    Consolidation and withdrawal plans in their current forms have left smaller towns scrambling for alternatives to the current system.

    “It has not been well received in Northport,” said Sandy Wallace. “It doesn’t matter who you ask.”

    Wallace talked about town run schools like those in the “school union” system in Lincolnville, Hope and Appleton, where three K-8 schools feed into one high school in Camden. Some saw this route, now called an “alternative operating system.” as a way to keep small elementary schools open. The down side is that it would require towns to foot the bill for their schools. Collins said towns wouldn’t necessarily stand alone. The tri-town area — Belmont, Morrill and Searsmont — would likely remain a region with shared costs, she said.

    “I know it’s kind of a wish list,” Wallace said. “But there’s just this turmoil and you don’t know how it’s going to play out in the end.”

    Rave reviews

    Asked by Collins about meeting again, the think tank’s members seemed undecided. Hurley said he wanted to let the ideas percolate, but also said he felt the clock ticking on any alternatives to the plans currently on the table. Randy Place suggested that members who are doing double duty on withdrawal committees be replaced in the interest of time.

    But whatever reservations members of the think tank may have had, attendants who sat thorough the three-hour session had nothing but praise for the group. Nearly all strongly encouraged (and at least one member of the audience begged) the group to continue. 

    Former RSU 20 school board chairwoman Jean Dube of Morrill reiterated the concerns of some think tank members that the consolidation and withdrawal efforts were speeding ahead without regard for smaller towns in the district.

    “There has to be a group that stops the ball rolling and gives time to think,” she said, “because there are towns that don’t have another option.” The think tank could be that group, she said.

    Searsport resident Dusty Nadeau contrasted the constructive work he just witnessed at the think tank meeting with an RSU 20 board meeting earlier in the week, which he said was so encumbered by procedural concerns and grandstanding that very little was accomplished. He placed equal responsibility on residents, who he said are often working from assumptions based on incorrect information. The combination, he said, “creates a circus environment at every meeting.”

    The think tank did not make formal plans to meet again.

    Collins offered that the group could potentially evolve into something like a steering committee for the RSU consolidation. However, if it became formalized, she would not continue to moderate the group, she said, because of her responsibilities to Belfast’s withdrawal committee.

    “But if we have something that’s working here, people can take their time with their withdrawal plans,” she said. “The withdrawal plan has to go to a vote, but people don’t have to approve it.” 

    Ethan Andrews can be reached at