Friday, October 16, 2020

Raymond residents weigh withdrawal from RSU 14

If approved by Raymond voters in a referendum
on Nov. 3, Raymond would withdraw from RSU 14 and
form a new school district. Under the proposal, Jordan-Small
Middle School and Raymond Elementary School would separate
from RSU 14 and the new district would hire a new
superintendent and create a new school board.
By Briana Bizier
For more than a decade, students at Raymond’s elementary school and middle school have been part of the RSU14 school district, sharing their school administration, buses, and educational resources with the neighboring town of Windham. This November, however, Raymond voters will decide if they wish to withdraw from RSU 14 in order to oversee their own schools.
Under the proposed withdrawal plan, known as Question One on Raymond
’s November ballot, the town of Raymond would form its own SAU, or School Administrative Unit. Raymond would lose its seats on the RSU 14 school board, and Raymond’s new SAU would form an independent school board that would then hire a superintendent on a three-fifths position to administer both Raymond Elementary
School and Jordan Small Middle School. Although a three-fifths superintendent position might sound odd, it is how Raymond schools operated before consolidating with Windham in 2008. The new Raymond school board would be responsible for everything from bus schedules to classroom technology to negotiating with the teachers’ union.
Raymond’s high school students can currently choose which school they wish to attend, and this would continue under the proposed withdrawal plan, as long as the chosen high school is able to accept the
new Raymond district’s tuition payment. Currently, 80 percent of Raymond’s high school students attend Windham High School. There is no plan to build a new high school for Raymond.
If the withdrawal plan is approved by voters, RSU 14 would transfer six buses and four vans to the new Raymond school district. RSU 14 would also continue to provide transportation for students who live in Raymond and choose to attend Windham High School.
In some ways, the seeds of this proposed withdrawal were sown back in 2008 when Windham and Raymond first merged as part of a state-wide initiative to consolidate school districts. For some Raymond students and their parents, this process did not go smoothly.
Frank McDermott, who came to Raymond in 1968 to serve as the principal of Jordan-Small, which was then then Raymond’s only school, praised Raymond’s school system.
“We were a Blue Ribbon School,” McDermott recalled, referring to a national educational award

granted to Raymond in 1988. “We had the opportunity to send teachers to national conferences and bring back great ideas. For a school system as small as it was, we really were very fortunate. That helped us do what we needed to do. It helped change the view of what Raymond schools were and could be.”
McDermott also confirmed that the 2008 transition from being an independent school system to being part of RSU14 was rocky. When the two school districts merged, McDermott recalled that Raymond lost funding for some of its programs, including a teaching position in Raymond’s computer lab.
Yet Jani Cummings, a longtime Raymond resident who taught at Raymond Elementary School for 38 years, said there were also benefits when the Raymond schools merged with Windham. “Raymond teachers used to buy our own paper,” Cummings said. “We had a very limited amount of supplies. I spent an average of $1,400 a year on my classroom, every year. The first thing that happened when we merged with Windham is that every teacher got the Reading Street series, which was $5,000 worth of books and equipment per classroom, just for reading.”
Students attend an outdoor class at Raymond Elementary
School in September. SUBMITTED PHOTO
It’s like any marriage,” Cummings continued, referring to the educational partnership between Raymond and Windham. “There’s the honeymoon stage, and then there’s the ‘you don’t make rice like my mother stage.’ But you learn to work together, and then you can’t imagine not working together.”
If the union between Raymond and Windham schools is a bit like a marriage, then it also has hit a few rough patches, especially with regards to spending. According to a “Frequently Asked Questions” section of the Town of Raymond’s RSU 14 Withdrawal webpage, Raymond was initially slated to fund 45 percent of the construction of a new     middle school in Windham.
The RSU14 school board also broached the idea of closing Jordan-Small Middle School in Raymond if a new middle school was built. However, that plan was abandoned when the RSU 14 school board reached a new agreement where Raymond’s share of the school budget is based on Raymond’s population, and any new construction will be funded entirely by the town doing the construction.
Proponents of Question One worry that this agreement is not being upheld. They point to the construction of a new town garage in Windham as evidence that Raymond taxpayers are being asked to fund projects which do not support Raymond students. In addition, the FAQ document continues, RSU 14 purchased modular units for classroom and office space in Windham instead of using available rooms in Raymond schools.
However, despite the partnership ’s rocky start 12 years ago and the recent spat over funding, many Raymond parents and educators argue that Raymond’s educational union with Windham is highly beneficial for students of both towns.
Raymond students have a lot more opportunities as a result of Raymond merging with Windham,” said Susan Brackett, a fourth-grade teacher at Raymond Elementary School whose two daughters attend
Windham High School and Jordan-Small Middle School. “For example, Windham and Raymond currently share a variety of positions, such as a superintendent, literacy coach, math coach, specialist teachers such as P.E. and music, and numerous special education positions. This means our students are taught by highly qualified full-time staff.  Before the merger, we were only able to hire part time specialists, which resulted in a lot of turnover.”
Cummings, who is currently serving as a member of the RSU 14 school board but emphasizes that her opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board as a whole, agreed with Brackett’s assessment.
“Having taught at RES when Raymond was a standalone district and then when it was part of RSU 14, I know that we are currently getting the best of both worlds,” Cummings said. “Small class sizes at community schools with access to the wide-ranging resources of a large district, all at a lower cost than if we were to withdraw.”
The costs of Raymond’s withdrawal from RSU 14 are a concern for both parents and non-parents alike. The proposed school budget on the Town of Raymond’s webpage shows a slight decrease in the town’s overall budget if Raymond forms an independent school district. However, this number does not include the estimated transition expenses of the withdrawal, which are slated to cost the town $600,000 in the first year.
Additionally, some Raymond residents expressed skepticism about the proposed budget.
Parent Kaitlin LaCasse noticed that the proposed budget does not include funds to address the many challenges of COVID-19, and Cummings expressed concern that the budget does not include a fulltime facilities director or an administrative assistant for the new three-fifths superintendent position.
Similar towns that have withdrawn from larger school districts have seen an increase in their property taxes. In 2014, the towns of Old Orchard Beach and Dayton voted to separate from the Saco school district. Both Old Orchard Beach and Dayton saw tax increases the following year, according to an article in the Portland Press Herald. The town of Sebago also withdrew from its school district in 2017. Subsequently, Sebago’s 2020-2021 tax budget rose by 4 percent to support their increased school budget.
An increase in property tax rates was also an issue in the 2015 election when Raymond residents first voted not to leave RSU 14. In that election, 71 percent of those who cast ballots opposed the 2015 withdrawal proposition.
“I served on the Raymond Withdrawal Committee in 2015, and it was as clear then as it is now that Raymond students would have more educational opportunities by remaining in RSU 14,” said Raymond resident Bob Gosselin. “Additionally, as the chairman of the Raymond Budget and Finance Committee, I can’t in good conscience support an effort that will in all likelihood raise costs for the town and for our taxpayers.”
However, not everyone is opposed to an increase in Raymond’s tax rate if the funds go to support the new, independent SAU.
“We have the tax base,” said McDermott. “Raymond can afford anything it wants. I don’t want to pay any more property tax than I have to, but I’m willing to pay it for the greater good.”
That greater good, McDermott continued, would include a world-class school system. “The reason I support this withdrawal,” he explained, “is that I hope it will allow Raymond to go back to what we were. I could see us having almost an Academy-type school in which every student was taken care of to give them the best education possible. Raymond is in a position where it could be a beacon, the leading town, in the Lakes Region. And to do this, you build the best school system possible.”
Cummings, however, expressed a different set of reservations about shifting the funding of Raymond schools solely onto the Town of Raymond. Town budget meetings can be notoriously contentious. Cummings recalled one year when two gentlemen almost came to blows over the school’s proposed budget.
“We went to the Town Meeting every year, and it was always scary,” Cummings told me. “The budgets got less and less because we were worried they wouldn’t pass. It was very stressful. We didn’t know until the budget passed if we would have a job next year.”
She admits that the school budget for the combined district still needs to be approved every year, and a degree of annual uncertainty persists for the faculty and staff of RSU 14.
“But the stability of our district now is something to fall back on,” Cummings said. “We have a larger population, and the taxation can be spread farther.”
Several Raymond residents expressed a sense of irritation as they experienced the déjà vu of explaining their opposition to the same withdrawal proposal that local residents rejected in the voting booth four years ago.
"I, along with my friends and neighbors, am frustrated that we are once again needing to explain to the Raymond Withdrawal Committee that RSU14 is working well for all parties involved,” said Alissa Messer, a Raymond parent and community volunteer.
Messer spearheaded the five-year effort to install the new playground at Raymond Elementary School, a project that involved cooperation at all levels of the district and incorporated the U.S. military. Messer was also the first to approach the RSU 14 board and request that stop-arms be installed on district buses, a concern that sparked a tremendous amount of collaborative fundraising work by the Windham PTA and the Raymond PTO. Numerous businesses, families, and a terrific group of children from Windham Odyssey Angels worked hard to raise a great deal of money in order to install the stop-arms.
“I have seen firsthand how the entire Raymond/Windham community works to support each other, from coming together to build a playground that generations of students and community members will be able to enjoy, to working to install stop-arms on our buses to keep kids safe,” Messer said. “It would be a mistake to think we could meet our community's needs while going it alone. I support our teachers and our kids, and I feel we are better together.”
Teachers also expressed concern about what Raymond stands to lose if the current partnership with Windham breaks down.
Brackett worries about the potential loss of Title 1 funding for Raymond schools. Title 1 funds are now used at Raymond Elementary School to support reading and math coaches in the classroom because RSU 14 as a whole qualifies for the federal assistance program. Alone, Raymond would not qualify for Title 1 funding and would need to either increase the town’s funding to the schools or eliminate those classrooms and reading and math coach positions.
For some parents and teachers, the current COVID-19 pandemic makes this difficult decision a bit easier. This September, when many schools around the nation were either converting to distance learning or offering in-person classes on adjusted hybrid-type schedules, all of the families in RSU 14 were given the choice of attending school either in person on a hybrid schedule or joining the district’s new online distance learning program.
“The district basically set up an entirely new school for remote learning,” said Raymond parent Kaitlin LaCasse. Her son Charlie is in a remote education second-grade class composed of students from both Windham and Raymond. Kate Griffin, who leads the virtual second grade classroom, is a teacher at Windham Primary School.
In Charlie’s half-hour reading group, there are three teachers split between 22 kids,” LaCasse said. “Raymond on its own would not have the resources to offer this option. One of the biggest benefits of being part of an RSU is that ability to share resources.”
Brackett echoes that sentiment.
“Separating from Windham results in a lot of unanswered questions, because we will have to start all over again,” she said. "Due to the unpredictability of our current world, I do not think it is beneficial to add one more unknown circumstance that will directly impact the lives of our children and students.”
Parents, teachers, and community members on all sides of this debate clearly have the best interests of Raymond students in mind.
For former superintendent McDermott, withdrawing from RSU 14 is the superior option.
“I really think that we owe our children the best possible education,” McDermott said. “I can see the difference education makes in people’s lives, and I want to see Raymond go back to the way it used to be.”
I have five kids,” McDermott continued. “Betty and I were and am so proud of our kids because of who they are and what they’re able to do. A lot of it, I give credit to the Raymond school system. My kids got a tremendous education here. They went out and made a mark in the world, and they started in a small, rural school system.”
Cummings, however, believes withdrawing from RSU14 is not the answer.
“I spent 38 years of my life teaching the kids of Raymond, and I’ve spent four years on the RSU 14 school board,” Cummings said. “So I’ve spent 42 years of my life caring for the kids of Raymond. If I thought this was a better idea for the kids of Raymond, I would be on my knees crawling to get this option. But this is not a good idea for the kids, and it’s not a good idea for the teachers.”
For Kaela Gonzalez, a Raymond resident and the mother of three young children, the choice is anything but clear. 
“I have followed the informational meetings closely and those who oppose the withdrawal have brought up valid points,” Gonzalez said, voicing concerns shared by many parents with children in the Raymond school system. “On the other hand, the proposed additions with withdrawal such as free lunch for pre-K through 4th grade sound like a good step forward. There are so many factors to consider and with so much at stake for my family, it is a hard decision to make.”
It’s a hard decision that all Raymond residents now face as Question One on their ballots next month. If the union between Raymond and Windham schools truly is like a marriage, it’s no wonder the question of withdrawing from RSU 14 quickly becomes emotional for proponents of either side.
 And, as with a marital breakup, the residents of Raymond must ask themselves: What’s best for the children? <

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