BAR HARBOR — The potential benefits and drawbacks of school consolidation were batted around at a June 15 Mount Desert Island Regional School System workshop by school board members, school teachers and administrators and members of the public.
About 50 people attended the workshop at MDI High School.
Participants were asked to weigh in on the pros and cons of the current educational structure in which there is one high school and eight K-8 schools, including the three outer island schools. Then they discussed whether it would be better – particularly from a quality-of-education standpoint – to have one high school, one middle school and a single elementary school for the four MDI towns and Trenton.
Southwest Harbor Selectman Lydia Goetze, citing the decrease in enrollment in several of the district’s schools over the past decade, said she thought some type of consolidation should be pursued. Otherwise, she said, “I think we would see declining support for our schools because costs would go up as the number of students went down. I don’t think that would be in the best interest of the kids.”
Goetze said that if the existing school structure is retained, “I think we would really feel very sedentary. If we weren’t willing to change … I think we would be pretty stuck in the mud.”
Ingrid Kachmar, a member of the Southwest Harbor School Committee and chairman of the High School Board, said, “Even if enrollment doesn’t decline, if it stays where it is right now, we will still have some small schools with some really small classes. I see that as a problem.”
Several school board members and others expressed concern over the impact on a community if its elementary school were to close and merge with a school in a neighboring town.
Trenton School Committee Members Andi Pepler and Sarah Catanese said they like the idea of each town keeping its own elementary school, but they see the advantages of having a single middle school for the whole district.
Pepler said there are benefits to starting out in a small school in a small town “where everyone knows your name and your dog’s name.”
Catanese said the early grades are a time for “building trusting relationships with adults and getting your educational foundation for reading and writing.”
She described the middle school grades as a “really pivotal … stepping stone to high school.”
Noting that some students who finish the eighth grade aren’t completely ready for high school, Catanese said, “I feel that if we combine our sixth, seventh and eighth grades, we will increase the opportunity for success by having multiple educators with more experience cultivating this group.”
Charlie Wray, a member of the Mount Desert School Committee and chairman of the school system board, said he too likes the idea of each community having its own elementary school. That, he said, engenders “a vibrancy … that is very positive for the town and for the kids.”
“Pulling out the middle schoolers would be a challenge for the towns,” Wray said. “But what’s in the best interest of the kids? That’s the balancing act. Are you doing this for the vibrancy of the town or for the best educational experience for the kids?”
If the students in the middle school grades in each of the elementary schools were pulled out and sent to a consolidated middle school, the elementary schools in Tremont and Trenton would be left with fewer than 100 students each. That would pose challenges, both educationally and financially.
Pepler suggested that if the district added pre-K education, the children would benefit, and each school might retain a viable level of enrollment.
Wray said that having a school building in each town could offer other opportunities for creativity in educational programming.
“If we wanted to have an alternative school, an experiential school, a school that was trade-oriented or focused on a local-based economy issue … that’s an advantage of having all these buildings. It’s an opportunity to do something different,” he said.
At their meeting Monday evening, school board members talked about the next steps to be taken in exploring the possibility of educational restructuring.
Wray said a seven-member steering committee would start meeting in August, and that there will be several working groups to gather information on such things a demographics and the schools’ physical assets.
He said the steering committee should create a timeline for doing its work and coming up with recommendations “so that we don’t let this continue to just generate angst and meetings and data collection forever.”
“We also need better engagement with our teachers because there are worries about reorganization, consolidation, school closures.”
Wray said the steering committee would plan to hold forums with teachers in the fall.
Superintendent Howard Colter said teachers “need to feel that they’ve got a voice in this and help avoid people making [wrong] assumptions about the intent of this work.”
He said there also needs to be a strong effort to involve the larger community.
“This can’t be seen as just a school district project,” he said. “Soliciting input and getting involvement from people in the community is really important.”