May 24, 2024

Orono panels make poor consolidation choice

There are two types of decisions leaders can make: informed decisions and uninformed decisions. The Orono Reorganization Planning Committee (ORPC) and the Orono School Committee made uninformed decisions during the last week of November when they voted to commit Orono to consolidating into Regional School Unit 16.

The town of Orono had the good fortune to have two notices of intent approved by the state. The first approved option is a merger with Orono, Veazie and Glenburn. This is the option overwhelmingly supported by the Orono community.

The second approved option was for RSU 16 as created by the state, which included the towns of Alton, Bradley, Greenbush, Milford, Old Town, Orono, Veazie, and possibly Glenburn. Thus began the process of deciding with whom to partner.

By their own admission, ORPC members received “reams of information” from August through November, which must have come from Veazie and Glenburn because nothing was received from Old Town, Alton, Greenbush, Milford and Bradley. By their own admission, ORPC members did not review any of it. Multiple times, committee members complained about information overload and openly admitted they had not read what they received.

Further exacerbating the situation, Orono representatives have not received any financial data from the state upon which to base a decision. The prevailing reason committee members gave against committing to the smaller Orono-Veazie-Glenburn configuration was concern over sustainability. Without appropriate data to analyze, one cannot make an argument for or against financial sustainability of either configuration. More students does not always ensure better sustainability. The Orono representatives had no information with regard to the schools in Old Town, Alton, Bradley, Milford and Greenbush except that the majority are lower performing academically.

The primary reason behind the decision to unite into RSU 16 seems to be the hope that someday Orono and Old Town might build a new consolidated high school. There have been no substantive discussions to date, at least none that are public knowledge, regarding firm planning for such a project. There are no financial commitments or projections on the state or local level at this time.

Apparently, Orono school leadership based its students’ educational futures on a hope that someday there could be a new school and that possibility is “exciting,” to use the words of one committee member. Exciting, yes, to be sure, but excitement over the possibility of a hypothetical project that is at least a decade away from breaking ground is hardly a solid reason grounded in fact.

The fact is, the state pushed regionalization on us as a cost-saving measure. The state does not have enough money to meet its commitments to the educational portion of the budget as it is. Orono’s leadership does not appear to have taken that fact into consideration.

On Nov. 26, the ORPC met with the express agenda of making a recommendation to the Orono School Committee as to which partners with whom to consolidate. At that meeting the ORPC was presented with 17 strategic questions created as a means of assessing the relative strengths of the two partnership options. The questions and assessment matrix were developed by a sub-committee formed by the ORPC, and were unanimously adopted at that meeting. Unfortunately, this set of questions was then completely ignored. Committee members did not even take the time to use their own assessment tool before casting their votes.

There is a way out. It starts with a new approach from the leadership in Orono. Read and analyze the data. We know current research indicates that high schools of the size that would be created by an Orono-Veazie-Glenburn partnership and a separate Old Town-Union 90 partnership tend to produce optimal learning results. We know that the towns of Veazie and Glenburn are ready to make commitments to a true educational partnership with Orono, as demonstrated through public statements and the amount of information they provided to our committee when requested.

We know the public in Orono supports the smaller RSU option (350 signatures and counting on an online petition posted by concerned citizens We know the state law allows for and encourages collaborations between school districts, and between districts and state, county, and local entities.

Here is what we can do: Establish two smaller school districts, which will be in the best interests of all the students involved – one centered in Old Town and one centered in Orono. Establish official collaborative partnerships between the two districts as a means of reducing costs and increasing opportunities in both districts. True leaders will remember that at the heart of any school reorganization, we must consider what is best for our students. Students in Old Town and Orono, Veazie, Glenburn and the four Union 90 towns will all benefit in this scenario.

But first, we must have a new vote on consolidation partners for Orono – and leaders who are willing to make thoughtful, well-considered, informed decisions after reading the information at hand.

Alison Williamson lives in Orono.

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