Trouble’s brewing in Trenton, where a group of citizens say they want out of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (AOS 91). They have submitted a petition seeking to ask voters at Town Meeting in May to consider initiating a withdrawal process.
Opposing the effort are members of the Trenton School Board and most of the staff of the Trenton Elementary School.
Trenton voters this past October approved a school budget necessitating a 9.9 percent property tax hike. That works out to roughly $300 more a year for a home valued at $280,000 — the median listing price in this seaside town.
The year prior, the Board of Selectmen created the School Evaluation Options Committee to study ways the tax burden of public education might be reduced. The group did not have the authorization nor initially the cooperation of the elected school board. Ultimately, the SEOC recommended the Trenton school withdraw from the district. The school board did not bite, so the petition was circulated by a former SEOC member.
The question then is what would Trenton gain from leaving the AOS — and what would it lose? SEOC members see opportunities for cost-cutting and greater local control. School officials say withdrawal could end up costing the school in areas such as collaborative professional development and grant opportunities. Rising costs, they argue, are largely outside their control without dramatically affecting the quality of education.
School budgets are notoriously complicated, with numerous departments, varied revenue streams and line after line of expenses. Many of those expenses are for things schools are state and federally mandated to do, such as provide special education services, or to fulfill contractual obligations, such as salary or insurance premium increases. Other line items could be classified as “wants,” but are things educators and the greater community are committed to providing for local children. Overall, the budgets are hard to digest for average citizens who want to do right by kids without seeing their property taxes spiral. It is easy and indeed reasonable to assume that there must be something, somewhere to cut. But for the average citizen, it can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Often it comes down to faith in school officials, including board members who are elected to serve in the community’s interest and keep a watchful eye on spending.
The Mount Desert Island Regional School System, AOS 91, was established with local control in mind. AOS stands for alternative organizational structure, an option offered when state law mandated school consolidation in 2008. Instead of being governed by a single regional board with members from district towns, an AOS allows a collection of school districts to work together while maintaining local school boards and town ownership of school buildings. There are nine schools in AOS 91. Towns have their own school boards in addition to sending representatives to the AOS board. There is a district representing just MDI High School. There are a lot of meetings and a lot of opportunity for local input.
Withdrawing from the AOS would be costly and complicated, and Trenton already exerts a great deal of local control through its school board. Residents concerned about costs or how the school is run should join board members at meetings and consider running for a seat at the table. Perhaps the wheel does not need reinventing.