School choice under attack in town of Alna

Andrew Charleson, left, and Irene Song read assignments on Google Chromebooks during an advanced 6th-grade reading class at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, Md., on Nov. 6. Apple products are being replaced as the inexpensive, cloud-based Chromebook makes inroads in to K-12 schools. In Montgomery County, Md. roughly 40,000 Chromebooks are being deployed to students. --T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week

In 2010, The Maine Heritage Policy Center shared an article titled, “School Choice working for Alna, therefore must be stopped.” It highlights a letter sent to our state representatives talking about the “threats” posed by school choice in the town of Alna. Ironically, the letter outlined the nature of preserving school choice as part of our consolidation agreement; a legally binding contract.

The person who crafted that letter, Doug Baston, tried (and failed) to change the state laws surrounding the terms of that legally binding contract. Eight years later, Baston is now one of Alna’s selectmen and is once again trying to get around the law, this time with an amendment of questionable legality to the RSU consolidation agreement.

So why are the RSU and the Alna Selectboard willing to risk a lawsuit? After all, school choice is working in Alna and has been for the past 20 years. Yet Alna’s selectboard has essentially said “people from away, go home” and is spreading fear and anger over having families move to our town. Why?

If you ask Baston, who has been leading the charge to get rid of school choice for many years, he will tell you that the town is in crisis. That is what he said back in 2006, 2009, and again this year. His alarmist warnings of a town falling into bankruptcy, taxes skyrocketing and developers recognizing a “gold mine” and building huge subdivisions to bring families here, have not come to fruition. Yet, Baston is still marching with the war cry of “families are moving to Alna simply to avail themselves of our “open checkbook” and they will bankrupt the town!”

If you open the local newspapers today, you do not read of the demise of Alna. Instead, you read about leaders in neighboring communities who struggle to find ways to encourage people “from away” to move here and increase the number of young families in their communities. Maine needs to attract young people, and while neighboring towns were trying to think of formulas for achieving this, Alna had already it figured out. We have school chocie.

Growth in Alna is limited and controlled by the planning board and strict guidelines have been set to maintain the town’s bucolic setting. Younger generations are encouraged to come here because we are a community that cares about children we trust parents to make the best education decisions for their families through school choice.

According to the US Census Bureau, 19 percent of Maine’s population is comprised of school-aged children, slightly below the national average of 23 percent. Alna has been steadily increasing the ratio of young people in the town from one to two percent above the state average. A goal of reaching the national average of 23 percent would still leave Alna in a healthy financial state with little impact on taxes.

School choice is a vital part of our community. It brings families to a town where taxes would otherwise be a deterrent. It brings families to a town that doesn’t have any public schools. The nearest public school in the RSU requires Alna kids to sit on the bus for 90 minutes every day.

Taking away school choice will not reduce property taxes in Alna. It will, however, impact property valuations and the real estate market. Proponents claim the proposed amendment is a fair option because existing residents get to keep school choice and new residents will still have public school choice.

But what they intentionally omit, however, is that Alna does not have any public schools. What they fail to mention is that there is an independent non-profit school right here in Alna, and that many children in Alna already attend public schools that aren’t in the RSU because they are closer. None of these schools can guarantee spots for future children in Alna.

Proponents also say the RSU formed a study committee to determine the legal and financial ramifications of the proposed amendment and found there was “no legal or financial risk,” but what they won’t tell you is that this so-called committee was comprised mostly of people that were already vocal supporters of the amendment, including Baston’s wife. They only met to deliberate once before handing down their findings a week later. They took no public comment or data and refused to look at any financial impact beyond five years.

Supporters of the amendment vilify private schools and shout “public money for public schools” but will not admit the simple fact that Alna pays the same amount per student regardless of where the child goes to school, while the RSU only has to pay the state-mandated tuitioning rate to private schools. What this means is that private schools actually cost the RSU less in tuitioning than most of the nearby public schools and don’t require the RSU to pay any overhead costs like busing, school administration fees or special education costs.

One area of impact that the committee, the town selectmen, and the RSU have avoided talking about altogether is the impact of the amendment on the RSU costs for special education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 13 percent of public school students receive special education services requiring individualized education programs (IEP) in the US.

For RSU 12, according to Superintendent Tuttle, their rate of IEPs is over 20 percent and growing. One of the largest expenses for a school system is the cost of providing for children with special needs. Alna has cleverly solved for this issue by giving parents the ability to choose a tailor made education for their children, costing the district less money and avoiding the lengthy IEP process.

Before you cast your vote on June 12th, please remember that while those pushing this amendment will say it is something Alna voted for, many of the families in Alna who have children and will actually be affected by this amendment did not vote for it.

The residents of Alna who would be most impacted by the amendment were excluded from being involved in any of the discussions surrounding this process.

Please vote No on the RSU 12 Alna School Choice Amendment on June 12th.



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