To the editor:
Growing up in Whitefield, I was incredibly lucky to experience a school environment that, even as children, we knew was special. Our little elementary school was the envy of nearby towns, and I am eternally grateful to all the good people involved, who gave me and so many others this exceptional experience.
Teachers like Paige Keeley and Cheryle Joslyn seemed to be constantly creating new educational opportunities for us; coaches like Bill Smith taught us that good sportsmanship meant an honest handshake with your opponent, win or lose; and artists like Natasha Mayers and Roger Majorowicz encouraged us to create work that still adorns the building today. Countless more played a part; it took the work of the entire community to build Whitefield Elementary into what it was.
It is this knowledge of what our community is capable of that leads me to question whether we gave away more than we realized when we, under duress, signed our school away to the district in 2009. It is not an attack on anyone, but simply common sense, to take a clear-eyed look at the results of Baldacci’s school district experiment and ask ourselves whether this is a policy that has worked, or whether this is a structure that is hindering our progress toward making our school as great as it can be.
In 2009, the year before we joined Regional School Unit 12, 53 percent of Whitefield Elementary students were at or above the state standard on the Maine Educational Assessment math test. Now, nine years of district control later, only 20 percent of our school’s students meet that state standard. Our school’s state report cards while in the district have been an F, and then a D. Our costs, the ostensible reason for joining the district, have gone up by $1,000 per student, while state and national per-student costs have fallen over that same time period.
While there are many good experiences still being created by teachers in our school today, such as entire days dedicated to community service, we now know that many children are also reporting traumatic experiences that I won’t rehash here. Nearly one-third of the elementary-aged kids in Whitefield have enrolled elsewhere, often at great personal cost to their families and hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost state subsidy and increased tuition expense for the district.
When once the school was the hub of our community, with talent shows, volleyball tournaments, and science fairs, now talented citizen volunteers are ignored when they offer their free assistance, and even the local Girl Scouts are denied access to the school’s facilities. When our town is represented by only three of the 17 board members overseeing our school, is it any wonder that the district is slow to acknowledge and respond to these local issues in our school?
Withdrawal from the school district is an option for Whitefield to restore local control and place our school back where it belongs: in the hands of the community that once made it great. Far from an isolationist policy, this would allow the town to eliminate layers of administration and create new partnerships that don’t involve paying the steep price we have all incurred over the last nine years.
It is incumbent on everyone involved, myself included, to work in cooperation with school staff and RSU 12 leadership to do everything possible to address these issues in the short term. But we must also carefully consider our options for our best path moving forward, and I hope everyone in town will openly share their thoughts about these options on Friday, Feb. 9 in the Whitefield fire station at 6 p.m. I know that Whitefield can help restore what was once dubbed a “model rural school” if given the opportunity, because I saw it firsthand. Our town deserves that chance, and our children, families, and taxpayers deserve nothing less.