Viewpoint: Trenton voters should have final say on school issue

By Susan Sargent 

I feel I need to explain my actions to the voters of Trenton, if only so that the chaotic, hair-raising Hollywood drama of whether to withdraw from AOS 91, or remain, can be better understood. I believe it should not be two people, or three, or five, on the school board or on the Board of Selectmen who dictate to the voters. The voters should tell the board members what they need. The tax burden would be better understood if our town offered a public library, fulltime fire and police and other services like other towns under the AOS. I know, as many in Trenton do, that our tax burden is close to overwhelming without any of these services and will only become more so if citizens don’t put their collective feet down. Is Trenton the only town in AOS 91 feeling the tax burden from rising education costs? I doubt that. 

I have worked hard with the School Evaluation Options Committee, established by the Board of Selectmen in the interest of the whole town, and we uncovered numerous ways that the school budget could be better managed. The report can be found on the town website and covers multiple costsaving measures. Ultimately, it was determined that by shedding much of the AOS 91 common overhead and focusing on the needs of our students, the education budget could be controlled with no loss of academic quality, and no loss of staff, their pay or benefits. With the help of others in Trenton, we obtained 75 signatures on a petition, asking that our town establish a committee to draft a plan of withdrawal from AOS 91. If drafted, the plan would be presented to the Maine Department of Education for approval. If the voters like the plan, they can then vote to enact it. If they do not like the plan, they can vote to disregard it. 

For years now, Trenton voters and selectmen have questioned the increasing education budget, but their concerns were not answered. Neither the superintendent nor the Trenton school committee have worked to curb costs. Are the children getting special perks only available in AOS 91? 

One can only wonder why they so strongly oppose a draft plan for withdrawal. Why would our own elected board members discourage giving the voters a chance to learn what a better-controlled education budget might look like? There is a fear, it seems, that a draft withdrawal plan might appear costeffective, that it might make sense to leave the AOS, that the Department of Education might actually approve it. 

The questions keep coming. Why was the interlocal agreement written in such a way that there is no clear-cut exit for any member? Was that monumentally shortsighted or are there multiple, legitimate ways to interpret it as written? This is a heads-up to other towns contemplating withdrawal in the future. This was written in 2008; now, 13 years later, it’s time to reevaluate the agreement. The big question is, would the AOS school board actually hold a member town as a financial hostage? 

This ride has been far from smooth for me. We all know that schoolchildren should not bully. We’re also told that the academic privacy of our children is a sacred trust that needs to be protected by the system. These principles did not stop a member of our school committee and teachers from bullying me on social media. Nor did it stop a former teacher from divulging private details about my child’s education on social media. I guess if you’re no longer drawing a wage from the taxpayers, you can betray the sacred trust. Not the least of these affronts, I have also been unfairly threatened with legal action because of my attempts to make a fairer tax burden for the voters of Trenton. My family and I have paid a price. I’ve lost some friends over this education budget issue, but I firmly believe that our voters need to know the facts. 

I have had children in the Trenton school system for 24 years. I have served on the school board for four years, including years shortly after joining AOS 91. The recent letter composed by Trenton’s teachers and sent to the school committee was negative and misleading. The blame for rising costs was cast on special education needs. Sure, just like every other school, Trenton must bear those expenses  because it’s the law. They ignored other rising costs, such as salaries, benefits and insurance, and expanding staff positions not directly related to teaching. The teachers claimed we would lose access to enhanced educational programs available only to AOS 91. The Biological Lab, Jackson Lab and Acadia National Park all offer opportunities to students. Would these nonprofits turn their backs to Trenton’s students if our town were independent? I can’t imagine that. The teachers stated, “If Trenton were to disband from the AOS they would seek opportunities to work within the AOS 91 district.” Has AOS 91 become a crutch to our teachers so that they can’t successfully function without it? Are they really saying they can’t reach out to the children to teach unless there is a voluminous, expensive staff of psychologists, therapists, managers and supporters available at their beck and call? I hope they would not choose to leave Trenton. They will lose nothing by staying but may gain the appreciation and thanks of the community. 

The voters have the opportunity to vote for a plan to be drafted. The voters will have another plan to vote for or against withdrawal from AOS 91.  

Susan Sargent is a former Trenton school committee member and chairman of the School Evaluation Options Committee. 

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