To the Editor:
Mount Desert Island’s longstanding discussion over school configurations is a consequential issue. It is a complex question that “hits home” for parents of school-aged children, for prospective families considering relocation and for every single island taxpayer.
We successfully navigated one high school merger here in the late 60s, which was traumatic then but in hindsight appears both prudent and educationally successful. We are currently experiencing declining elementary enrollments, a long-term shift in the island’s age demographic, high per-pupil costs in every town and a superintendent’s job description that may have dissuaded some candidates from even applying for our most recent vacancy.
The processes by which we eventually decide where our children go to school are equally consequential. MDI residents deserve opportunities to pose and debate productive and illuminating questions that help us to understand our present-day situation, seek educational goals that unify us and explore our options with some objectivity.
That’s why I was dismayed earlier this summer to see the way Barbara Kent-Lawrence framed the consolidation question in her letter to Islander readers. Her “doctor of education” signature felt somewhat over the top considering that all perspectives and opinions on the issue should be welcomed and respected. I take issue with the universal certainty with which she offers her argument.
School consolidation may be more costly in many settings, but consolidation of itself does not guarantee higher costs. How, specifically, would the merger of two small and under-attended MDI schools generate greater expense? Which new positions does she presume would be created? And, would five to 10 more miles really create unendurable bus rides or impossible parent commutes to school events?
Smaller schools do not generate higher student achievement simply because of their smallness or locale. The same may be said about a school’s grade configuration. We can find myriad small rural schools in Maine and elsewhere that, by nature of their size, actually struggle to improve or maintain adequate student achievement.
Smaller schools are often challenged in the recruitment and retention of teachers and effective leaders. Many cannot offer full-time positions to their professionals in guidance, music, art or world language. Often, they lack the ability to attain efficiencies of scale in purchasing, in educational programming or in the professional development opportunities they provide. Under-enrolled schools are further challenged by the tension between building upkeep and taxpayer capacity to pay.
Finally, school smallness can come with downsides that should be honestly aired. Is it always ideal for your son or daughter to move through nine years of elementary schooling with five or six classmates of the same gender? Is it always ideal that each grade level is taught by one teacher who reflects on her professional craft in near isolation?
Can a school become too small? What are the indicators?
Can a closed school building be repurposed for innovative uses that enhance the bonds of community?
If an agreement among the island’s communities appears impossible in spite of trying, what then is the role of the superintendent and school boards? (Hint: not deciding is a form of decision-making.)
Every island resident has expertise to share on this issue. We all have skin in the game. Let’s keep talking.