By Amanda Clark, Education Policy Analyst
The rural towns of Athens and Brighton Plantation, nestled in the lower part of Maine’s second district, are in the works of withdrawing from School Administrative District #59. Members of the respective withdrawal committees cite “local control” and parents’ primary role in the direction of their children’s education as the overall end goals of the independence pursued. This Customized Learning approach, with a selection of learning methods, allows a child’s needs and interests to be better met. Additionally, town tuitioning is a perfect way to confront the dilemma of a shrinking population and declining birth rate particularly in Maine’s second district.
Currently, SAD #59 is composed of Athens, Brighton Plantation, and Madison. Discontentment between SAD #59 board members brewed in early 2010 with the establishment of a new weighted voting system whereby members’ votes are reflective of the percentage of the district’s population they represent, per state law.
Prior to this weighted voting system, each of the eleven members had nearly equal voting power. Representatives from Athens and Brighton Plantation have grown increasingly disgruntled over the repeated occasions where motions are passed purely as a result of the weight of Madison’s votes, despite outnumbering the count of Madison’s votes. Ramifications of this weighted voting system having unfortunately led to the disadvantage of the smaller towns’ students. One such example was the vote to combine over twenty-one second and third grade students in an Athens classroom all the while maintaining three third grade classes at the Madison school, with around a dozen students per class.
Other disagreements between Athens and Madison concerning the budget, merging with SAD #53, and the since past closing of Starks school have spurred Athens voters to initiate the formation of the Athens Education Exploratory Committee and the Brighton Education Exploratory Committee, at this point, essentially “withdrawal committees.”
Athens withdrawal committee proposes their town to become a School Administrative Unit, an autonomous entity with its own school board of Athens residents and control over their own budget, curriculum, and independent sports teams. The SAU would join an Alternative Organizational Structure with other SAU’s for the sake of sharing a Superintendent, Special Services Director, and Transportation Director.
Operating as an SAU, Athens would allow secondary students to have more Customized Learning opportunities with a selection of surrounding high schools in which to enroll.
Dan Viles, chairman of the Athens withdrawal committee explained earlier this month, “One of our early goals was that we wanted to become a choice school district for secondary students. So if a student wants to go to Skowhegan, or Dexter or any other school, they can do so based on the program that school has.”
Brighton Plantation students will also have new Customized Learning opportunities as a result of their independence from SAD #59. These opportunities will be determined with the founding of a new independent school board.
Next steps for the withdrawal committees (after approval given by SAD #59’s agreeable school board) involve submission of the proposals to the Department of Education, a public town meeting, and then a final town vote. The exit of Athens and Brighton Plantation from SAD #59 is expected to be confirmed this summer.
East Millinocket students may also have a chance at Customized Learning in the near future. Due to declining enrollment trends and the expense of building repairs, the closing of Schenck High School is up for debate and will likely be put up for referendum. On first glance, voters will be deciding whether or not to repair the school building. However, this vote will carry greater consequences – determining whether East Millinocket students will continue to enroll in a curriculum based on their zip code, a one-size-fits-all approach, or whether they will have opportunities to enroll in neighboring curricula wherever their needs and interests are better suited.
The effects of Demographic Winter are deeply rooted in the second district and taking their toll on Maine’s education system. Towns like Athens, Brighton Plantation and East Millinocket are realizing the need for creative solutions given Maine’s shrinking population and declining birth rate. With fewer and fewer young people in our population each year, Maine cannot afford to sustain the current traditional public, brick-and-mortar system as it stands. Athens and Brighton Plantation are well on their way to re-instilling Customized Learning for the sake of Maine’s children. Other towns throughout Maine should consider becoming independent of their School Administrative Districts to reclaim local control, to promote cost efficiency, and to redirect learning per the uniqueness of individual students and families.
Read here to learn about how your town can take the first step toward independence and Customized Learning for Maine’s children.