We need to invest in schools, not close them
Like school districts throughout Maine, we are about to embark on the yearly budget ritual, presenting our communities with challenges and opportunities. Those challenges seem to routinely involve discussions and decisions about potential consolidation and closure of schools.
Many of the issues that lead school districts to the point where they may have to consider this route can be laid at the feet of consecutive legislatures and governors that have failed to follow the will of Maine voters and fund 55 percent of public education. That history is now expressing itself in communities throughout Maine where dwindling numbers of taxpayers are no longer able to fund the state’s share of the bill for education.
In some cases, around Maine, it may make sense to close a school. Services and education can be provided and redundancies can be reduced without harming the students, their education, or the communities. This definitely isn’t the case in the communities in my region.
Patten is in a unique position. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, established in our back yard, is already acting as an economic catalyst for the community and surrounding region. If you look at the trajectory of gateway communities like ours around the country, you see people visiting an area, falling in love with it, and then moving there to set up a small business or raise a family. But, the ultimate relocation choice doesn’t rely solely on the existence of such sites. If people are looking to raise a family they will look at local schools and this is where we must think long-term.
A recent submission by a member of the RSU 50 school board looked at this same question and erroneously, arrived at a different conclusion. Closure of a school will, in most cases, reduce the cost associated directly to the school district. You will have less infrastructure to maintain, fewer staff to pay, and other potential savings. But, those savings will come at a terrible, long-term price.
Reducing the number of staff by closing a school means there will be an increase in unemployment or continued outmigration. Local school faculty are local residents, meaning they pay taxes, participate in the community, and maintain their homes. We must also attract new families and professionals, and quality schools do that more than almost anything else.
School budgets need to ensure local tax dollars spent on education have the highest possible return on investment. This may involve the use of new technologies to connect students to services we cannot yet afford. We need investments that strengthen our schools that will help bring back those who may be homeschooling because of what they see as low educational standards, bullying, and lack of leadership.
Looking at the revitalization of our communities as a multifaceted process will help grow our population. To do that, we must diversify, embrace our new economic opportunities, and strengthen our local schools. Giving up on and closing our school(s) for “better opportunity” is a recipe for disaster.
Richard H. Schmidt III