While RSU 50 vote was clear, the challenge grows
Voters in the Katahdin area approved a plan for withdrawing from RSU 50. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. Presentations in support of withdrawal were made in each community where the voting took place.
No information, however, was provided on why withdrawal may not be in the interest of our students or communities. What has been missing from the conversation is why in 2014 consolidation of grades 9-12 was considered. It was not solely to save money. Both high schools would have been closed. A new high school with a new name, new mascot, etc. would have been created. The board understood that a declining enrollment, a declining population, and the ever older demographic could not be ignored indefinitely.
The board authorized two studies as they sought unbiased guidance.
Studies were conducted by Great Schools Partnership Inc. of Portland and Planning Decisions Inc. They were paid more than $10,000. The studies concluded that, “the population of school age students is declining across Maine, including northern Maine and RSU 50.” Additionally, the report stated, “Two parallel school systems are inherently less efficient.
The most recent five years the RSU has witnessed a loss of just over 20 students annually, on average. That trend is consistent with the past twenty years, over which the trend has been just over 23 students annually.” When the report was presented in 2014, RSU 50 had a total of 742 students. As of September 2017, enrollment in RSU 50 was 662 total students with 182 students in grades 9-12 at Katahdin and Southern Aroostook combined. Declining student enrollment continues.
Former Superintendent Hammer and the board felt a need to address the issue and to present a proposal. Consideration was given to consolidation of grades 9-12 in both the Stacyville and Dyer Brook. As I understand it, the decision to present Dyer Brook as the location for a new consolidated high school was based on geography.
Many of RSU 50’s juniors and seniors attend Region 2 programs in Houlton. Presently, 76 percent of Katahdin juniors and 80 percent of Katahdin seniors attend Region 2 programs. Forty two of the 54 Katahdin students in grades 11 and 12 attend Region 2 programs in Houlton. Thirteen of the 29 Southern Aroostook juniors and seniors also attend Region 2 programs. The decision to propose Dyer Brook as the location was based on transportation of students. Students are bused to Houlton to attend Region 2 and students could return to a Dyer Brook campus in time to attend the last class period of the day.
The proposal would have provided approximately $600,000 in new funding annually for students, facilities, faculty and staff, in savings, or any combination thereof.
While I respect the will of the voters, the challenge remains and grows. The median age in Maine (the oldest in the nation) is 42. The median age in Island falls is 54, in Patten, 51, in Sherman 52, in Mount Chase 56. Where will the children come from to fill our schools?
This is not an RSU 50 problem. It is an issue facing our entire area. We had a population of 106,000 people in 1960. We have approximately 57,000 now. In 1960, 6.5 percent of the population was over 60, now it’s almost 30 percent and by 2030, 40 percent of the population will be over 60.
The fact remains that our population continues to decline and grow older. In both 2016 and 2015, more people died than were born. Additional people left. We need to address the issue of a declining and aging population with the sense of urgency it deserves. Our efforts together are generally better than what we can do individually. We are a community of communities. No one town in this rural area stands alone.
New opportunities for school consolidation will come. Opportunities to work together will come, opportunities that will enable us to be not only more efficient but more effective. Will we accept them? Will we remain adamant that local control is more important than our future, the future of our children?
If we really want to see our area grow, we need to be more open to the changes necessary to make that happen.