Issue 9: School Independence

It is two years since the town of St. George gained its independence from Regional School Unit 13. How is it going, and what does St. George’s experience suggest tor the other towns – and one city – in the RSU?

The Buzz recently conducted an informal poll of St. George parents at a little league baseball game. The verdict: unanimous support for independence. Parents love their newly independent K-8 school, love having their superintendent in the building, love the new focus on learning by doing, and love having a choice about where their children can go to high school – to Camden HHS, Watershed School, Oceanside, Medomak, or Lincoln Academy.

Mike Felton, hired by the town to superintend St. George’s new “Municipal School Unit,” loves his job and calls it the opportunity of a lifetime. Being in the building is an important part of it, he agrees.

Felton says the school’s new approach is “very hands on,” and the school is working to become a certified Expeditionary Learning school, of which there are now over 150 in the US. It is not “skill and drill,” says Felton, and the new approach is a part of students every day at school. Studying with local institutions such as the Herring Gut Learning Center and the Nature Conservancy, and with local fishermen, naturalists, and others, students explore the world they live in, and learn to observe, to analyze, and to solve problems. “Life is not going to be a multiple-choice test,” says Felton.

Support for the independence referendum three years ago was overwhelming, says St. George School Board Chairman Bill Reinhardt, despite concerns of some residents that costs might go up. He rates the experience of the last two years as an “unqualified success.” According to both Reinhardt and Felton, costs to the town went down slightly in the first year, despite the reintroduction of programs cut by RSU13, including Expeditionary Education programs, and the expansion of others, such as arts, music, foreign language, and phys ed, and the hiring of three additional teachers. St. George’s costs for the school did go up slightly for the second year, mainly due to the addition of two more full-time teachers, and a reduction in state aid.

The complex formulas for state aid and the distribution of financial obligations between the municipalities within RSU13, and the complex negotiations of the withdrawal process, all make it difficult to calculate before and after scenarios for school independence. How would Rockland fare, for example, if it were to take responsibility for its own schools?

The question is pertinent now, because RSU13 has just given back to Rockland the McLain School, which it has been using as administrative headquarters. The beautiful classic school building is smack in the middle of the city where it would be walkable for many students.

What difference might it make if Rockland had its own K-8 schools? Well, if we could get our act together as a community, a big “if” to be sure, we might just be able to stand up to the professional administrators and give our teachers the latitude to have schools that do not fail our children. “In RSU13 it was always no, no, no, you can’t do that,” says Bill Reinhardt,“with independence we gained the political will to say ‘Yes we can.’”

School independence will be the subject of the conversation on WRFR’s Rockland Metro Show next Wednesday, May 31, from 5 to 6 PM. Bill Reinhardt has agreed to join us, and you can too, on the air and/or at the round-table supper that follows the show. Email: robert@thebuzz.me.