The Universal Notebook: RSU withdrawal symptoms

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Last week, citizens in five Maine communities – Saco, Wiscasset, Ellsworth, Hancock and Lamoine – voted to withdraw from the regional school units they joined as part of the government-mandated school consolidation mania five or six years ago.

So far, communities in 22 of the 24 RSUs formed have expressed interest in withdrawing and nine communities have done so. On Dec. 17, Freeport citizens will hold a vote on whether to withdraw from RSU 5. My guess is they will. And they should.

The Nov. 5 vote on Freeport High School renovations demonstrated one of the primary problems with school consolidation. Voters in Durham and Pownal voted against renovating forlorn Freeport High School. Fortunately, there were enough votes in Freeport to overcome the opposition and to do what needs to be done.

When a vote was held on the high school renovations back in June, the measure was narrowly defeated, with Durham and Pownal overwhelmingly opposed and Freeport overwhelmingly in support. Having voters in outlying communities dictating school priorities is a major reason Freeport will likely opt out of RSU 5.

Freeport school facilities have needed improvement for years. People who say that facilities don’t affect the quality of an education are wrong. Yes, a good teacher can teach motivated students in a barn, but school facilities are an outward expression of the value a town places on education. A failure to adequately fund schools is indicative of a community that is not committed to quality education.

Good school systems tend to become self-perpetuating. People move to Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth and Yarmouth because of the excellent schools. As a result schools in these towns develop a constituency that places a high value on education. School budgets and school facilities bonds pass easily.

The failure to pass the high school renovation measure in June was partly attributed to opposition to a new artificial turf athletic field that was part of the package. The high school renovations and the turf fields were voted on separately last week and Durham and Pownal still voted against the school improvements.

I have no idea whether the Durham and Pownal voters who opposed improving the high school their children attend are just fiscally conservative, seriously don’t think Freeport High School needs work, believe they are paying more than their fair share already, or are an older population without kids in the schools. But the majority of people in most communities do not have kids in the school system. They support the schools because they value the contribution to society that education makes. They also realize that someone paid for the schools they attended.

I’m afraid I have little patience with people who vote against school budgets and school improvements once their own kids have graduated. Better to just move to towns with lower taxes once you no longer need good schools.

Good schools cost money, but they also create real value. Not only do they help produce a well-educated citizenry, which is priceless social capital, they also increase real estate values. Investments in school facilities pay long-term dividends in terms of quality of life and personal worth for years to come.

Freeport seems to have put its money into the Fire Department and public works, rather than its schools. The outlet boom-town is a textbook example of why retail growth does not always benefit a community. If it did, Freeport, South Portland and Kittery would have the best school facilities in the state. But the revenue all those retail outlets generate has to go right back into the services they require – public safety and public works, not public schools.

School consolidation was a mistake when it was enacted in 2008. It was an easy political argument to sell: consolidating school districts would save administrative overhead and create greater educational opportunities.

But in many cases there were no savings and no educational benefits, just a loss of local control. Maine had the chance to correct the school consolidation mistake in a 2009 referendum, but repeal failed. Apparently, voters were feeling too invested in the new RSUs to pull out so soon.

Something tells me Freeport voters won’t feel that way on Dec. 17.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.