Jim Rier has seen the future of public education in Maine, and it's eerily quiet - as in dozens of empty classrooms and shuttered schools. After peaking at 250,000 youngsters in 1975, student enrollment has dropped steadily for three decades, and it's about to get a lot worse.
Rier, policy director for the state Department of Education, says that a study of school enrollment trends prepared by the State Planning Office last year predicts that by 2010 the state will have just over 180,000 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, a drop of almost 10 percent from this year's 199,000. And while school rolls are expected to shrink in all of Maine's sixteen counties, Down East and northern Maine will be particularly hard hit.
"We're predicting a 30 percent drop in Washington County alone in the next ten years," Rier notes. "If they think they've lost a lot of students already, they haven't seen anything yet."
At the same time, the pressure on local school boards from their own budgets and from the state is growing to create larger, more-centralized schools and school districts. Now, Rier argues, is the time to start planning for a future that will probably mean closing and consolidating a lot of small rural schools.
And small-town schools will feel a disproportionate share of the impact of shrinking student populations. Belfast will see classroom numbers drop 18 percent, from 900 this year to 740 in 2010 (and to an estimated 660 in 2015), while Scarborough, one of Portland's booming suburbs, is expected to grow from its current 3,306 students to 3,545 in five years.
At the same time, recently released research from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine argues that school size has little or no effect on student academic performance and school districts could save millions of dollars by concentrating more students into bigger schools. Meanwhile, Maine government's new education funding mechanism is cutting the state's share of school budgets for rural schools by hundreds of thousands of dollars while giving larger urban and suburban districts more money than they know what to do with.
"The pressures lately are just enormous," notes Bob Young, superintendent of School Administrative District (SAD) 34, which includes Belfast, Swanville, Searsmont, Belmont, and Northport. Young is counting on population growth in outlying towns to make up for the loss of students in Belfast, but the district just built a brand-new central elementary school on the outskirts of Belfast that replaced three neighborhood schools.
There are lots of indications that, in rural Maine especially, something needs to change in the way we educate children," says the Department of Education's Rier. "The numbers are declining and will continue to decline, and we have to adapt to that fact."
Rier carries that message to school districts all over the state, which doesn't make him a particularly popular person in some places. "Almost without exception," he says, "in every town I visit the people say, 'It's not happening here. We have plenty of students. You must be talking about someplace else.' The level of denial and the emotional responses are amazing sometimes."
In fact, Rier doesn't like to travel to Washington County anymore. Too many people there don't want to hear what he has to say.
One of them is Paula Bouchard, of Eastport. When she talks about state projections for the student population in Eastport, she gets so angry that her sentences start stumbling over each other as she sputters to get them out. The projections offered by Augusta are predicting that Eastport will see its student population drop by almost half in less than ten years, from 218 today to 113 in 2013.
"I think it's exaggerated," Bouchard declares. "Who knows what's going to happen in ten years? It's easy for them to predict this stuff, but we're the ones who are living with it."
Bouchard is a lifelong Eastport resident, mother of the 2003 class valedictorian at the local Shead High School, mother of the 2004 salutatorian, and chair of the Eastport School Board. And as far as she's concerned, the state is using scare tactics in a campaign to force towns to consider what for many small-town residents is anathema: consolidation.
"The state is trying to force us to close our schools," Bouchard says. "There has been a history here of the state trying to force consolidation for the past ten or twelve years. People come here from Augusta and talk gloom and doom and tell us we're going to have to bus our kids to Calais [twenty-eight miles away]."
Rier doesn't deny that he talks a lot about consolidation, but he insists that the numbers are forcing change. The state is just trying to get ready for a future nobody saw coming. "This is a subject that will have a significant impact on the whole state, not just the Department of Education or local schools," he explains.
The Department of Education first asked the State Planning Office to take a preliminary look at school enrollment in 2002, when Rier was at the state Board of Education, which ranks and approves all new school construction projects, among other duties. At that time, the state had been spending $67 million to $85 million a year since the mid-1990s on new schools and additions.
"That first survey concerned us greatly," Rier continues. "The study showed marked declines all over the state, every county, although some individual southern Maine communities would see growth. We decided then that we had to start questioning assumptions of continued growth."
When the State Planning Office did a more comprehensive school enrollment study in 2004, "in many cases the results looked even worse," Rier says. "We realized we had to begin looking at more regional concepts [as opposed to municipal solutions] and how Maine might reorganize education."
The problem is simple demographics. Among white Americans, the population is aging and having fewer children. And Maine is the oldest and whitest state in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Look at almost any school district in Maine, and the high school senior class is much larger than the kindergarten class," notes William J. Michaud, superintendent of schools in Scarborough.
Scarborough, with 3,306 students and growing, is in a position so unlike most of Maine's school districts that it may as well be on another planet. The town is in the midst of a $26.9-million renovation and expansion project at the high school, all of it locally funded. The middle school, built in 1995 with a capacity for 600 students, now has 804 pupils and a covey of fifteen portable classrooms surrounding it. The three kindergarten-to-second-grade schools are all at or near capacity.
"We're adding staff, expanding our schools," says Michaud. "We're definitely different in the state of Maine."
So different that, under the Essential Programs and Services (EPS) system adopted earlier this year that determines the state funding formula for local school districts, Scarborough received $1.3 million more than it did in 2004. By contrast, Belfast's SAD 34 lost $750,000, and Eastport's state funding dropped by $400,000. Both school districts are getting some state transitional money to cover their losses as the new system is phased in, but that funding will decline over the next four years.
"I really have a great deal of sympathy for my colleagues in the more rural districts," Michaud says sincerely. "Scarborough is doing really well. But there were a lot of years when the rural districts did much better than the larger, wealthier districts."
Local school leaders look at enrollment trends and the way the new funding favors larger districts and see the writing on the chalkboard. "I'm feeling okay for this year because of the transitional money we're receiving," says SAD 34's superintendent Young, "but the jury is out for next year. The formula really seems to short a lot of rural districts, and the transitional money only lasts for four years." Because of the uncertainty surrounding enrollments and the new state fundings mechanism, no one is willing to predict the ultimate effect on local property taxes.
Our enrollments have declined over the years, as have many other small towns," Eastport's Bouchard allows. "We've already started to consolidate some classes in the elementary grades." The high school enrollment has remained fairly steady, she adds, because it draws students from the surrounding towns of Union 104, which includes Perry, Pembroke, Charlotte, and Dennysville as well as Eastport.
Between the new funding formula and declining enrollments, "the message from the state is consolidate or else," Bouchard explains. "But we have no school in our area that we can consolidate with. It's not like we can close the high school and bus everyone to Calais. I will fight to the end to prevent that."
Eastport's total population has dropped to less than 1,700 people, and the only newcomers in town are older couples drawn by the opportunity to buy ocean-view property at reasonable prices. "I wish we had some younger families moving in," Bouchard admits.
The Education Department's Rier notes that younger families moving in are a distinct rarity anywhere in Maine's easternmost county. In SAD 37 -Harrington, Milbridge, Cherryfield, Columbia Falls, and Addison - student numbers have dropped by 20 percent, yet each town has its own elementary school no more than five miles from the school in a neighboring town. "They've lost all those students, but they haven't cut staff or administration costs at all," Rier points out.
On the other hand, in the past few years SAD 4, centered in Guilford, has closed four elementary schools and consolidated staff and administrators in one building for substantial savings. But that came only after several years of resistance from a member town, Wellington, which fought bitterly to keep its one-room school even when it hosted a bare handful of students.
"Having an elementary school in your town is right next to God," Rier says. If he's right and if the numbers are right, many small Maine towns may need divine help to keep the schools they have.