EMBRACE prudence

The headline sent a chill through many a taxpayer: “At $24,000 per student, board ponders options.” Last week’s front page report described the financial dilemma facing Deer Isle and Stonington taxpayers.

Education costs in Maine are escalating at the same time that enrollments are declining, an unfortunate reality in a rural state with an aging population. The staggering cost headlined above is an exaggerated sample of what communities across Hancock County and the state are facing as we head into town meeting season.

Christian Elkington, superintendent of School Union 76, of which Deer Isle-Stonington is a part, is tasked with exploring alternatives for the towns and students he serves. “My job is to throw out options,” said Elkington in an understatement of the bold thinking that will be necessary to control ever-increasing costs.

Proposing specialized schools focused on specific skills, sharing students with other schools and consolidating school buildings and school districts are all ideas that Elkington is putting forth to limit costs while still providing the education necessary for tomorrow’s adult citizens.

During Governor Baldacci’s administration, the Department of Education forced consolidation on many small school districts using a big and a dubious carrot. While the effort might have been sound strategically — and a forecast of today’s constrained economics — the heavy-handed approach was ultimately overturned. While small towns often are reluctant to lose their community school, just as towns used to embrace the community church as the essential center of rural life, such a change does not necessarily mean the loss of the community’s identity.

A new Maine Department of Education grant program supported by Rep. Brian Hubbell and Sen. Brian Langley might present a useful option. The tries-too-hard acronym is EMBRACE, which stands for Enabling Maine Students to Benefit from Regional and Coordinated Approaches The second round of EMBRACE grants have just been announced for 2018, with 11 proposals receiving over $4.6 million for pilot projects ranging from enhancing alternative education requests, improved technical education, regional collaborations for professional development, increased preschooler support and even middle school programs to reduce truancy and dropout rates. All of the winning school applicants are multiple-community, regional efforts to address shortcomings or gaps in what the standard education process provides to an evolving student population. These new opportunities have both social and economic benefits. Many of the grants are projected to save more money over a 10-year cycle.

With per-pupil costs in many towns as expensive as a year at the University of Maine at Orono (including books, tuition and board), the economic shock can be taxing and emotional. Yet, if these costs are not addressed, and options to control and limit cost not explored, the disparity of opportunity in small Maine towns will leave students at a huge disadvantage in the later stages of their lives. Looking over the horizon, who sees special education costs, teacher pensions cost or building maintenance costs going down?

Pursuing options now, working with programs such as EMBRACE, exploring ideas such as those Superintendent Elkington has put forth and using more carrots for cooperation with neighboring (and partner) communities will assure better fiscal control.

Town meetings will feature one hefty line item in every town. To be fair, the state has contributed the most education assistance ever. It is difficult to envision more state money going to education given Augusta’s other fiscal burdens. Voters need to be realistic: Can we afford so many small, community schools, no matter how good they are?

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