Superintendent John McDonald and RSU 13 Board Chair Steve Roberts  (top) and Business Manager Peter Orne (bottom) discuss the “Schools of the Future Initiative” (Photos By Andy O’Brien; Photo at left by Dan Kirchoff)
Superintendent John McDonald and RSU 13 Board Chair Steve Roberts (top) and Business Manager Peter Orne (bottom) discuss the “Schools of the Future Initiative” (Photos By Andy O’Brien; Photo at left by Dan Kirchoff)
After over a year of information gathering, the Regional School Unit 13 administration has unveiled its comprehensive “Schools of the Future” plan, which aims to unify curriculum and instruction while creating “community-centered schools that provide for safe, efficient, comfortable and attractive learning environments.” The plan involves merging facilities, upgrading the efficiency of buildings and introducing a range of new programs. RSU 13 comprises the towns of Rockland, Thomaston, South Thomaston, Owls Head and Cushing. 

The entire package is projected to cost roughly $13.4 million over 17 years, but would be paid for through efficiencies that include the consolidation of facility operations and energy savings. 

“We’re planning ahead 20 years. This is not a flash in the pan,” said RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald in his presentation before the board last Thursday. “If we do this with these facilities, with these improvements and with the changes in the curriculum, it’s a long-range plan. It’s not a one-year budget fix. It’s a look toward the future, so that my successor, whoever that may be, 20 years from now can look around and have a great system to work with.” 

McDonald said the plan calls for one high school for grades 9-12 at Oceanside East in Rockland and a single regional middle school for grades 6-8 at Oceanside West in Thomaston. Currently, grades 10-12 are on the Rockland campus (formerly Rockland District High School) and grades 8 and 9 are at the Oceanside West Building (formerly Georges Valley High School). 

McDonald’s plan would close the Gilford Butler School in South Thomaston, which serves kindergarten through second grade, and the McLain School building in Rockland, which houses the administrative offices of the district. Thomaston’s Lura Libby, which serves kindergarten through fourth grade, would also be closed, and the students would move to Thomaston Grammar School.

The initiative would require expanding Oceanside East to receive the ninth grade; nearly doubling the size of Owls Head School to receive the additional students from Gilford Butler; and renovating South Elementary School and Rockland District Middle School to accommodate the pre-K to grade 5 students and office space for the superintendent, business manager, special ed and adult ed. 

McDonald’s proposal would also renovate Oceanside West, for the grades 6-8 middle school, as well as Cushing School and Thomaston Grammar School to receive pre-K through grade 5 students from Lura Libby. 

McDonald said that the new reorganization of facilities will help better align the schools with the state’s curriculum standards, which are grouped into K-5, 6-8 and 9-12. 

“A regional middle school will provide for consistency of instruction and allow for more effective use of teaching teams and collaboration amongst teaching staff to support teaching and learning for students,” he said. 

McDonald added that several teachers had recommended that fifth-graders should return to the elementary schools.

“Academically, socially and emotionally, fifth-graders are more members of the elementary family than middle level,” he said.

Academic Academies & New Discipline Models

The proposal also includes the implementation of a “Freshman Academy” program that would create a special team to support students academically, socially and emotionally, with the focus on making freshman year a period of transition. The goal of the freshman academy model is to reduce truancy referrals, failures and retentions, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals. McDonald said he also plans to create more opportunities for students to take low-cost or no-cost college credits while attending high school. 

In additon, the initiative would expand the “academic academy” model, which allows students to focus on learning skills related to a career path. Currently, the district is developing the Fishermen’s Academy for students pursuing careers in the marine trades. McDonald said he also hopes to implement a science, technology, engineering & mathematics (STEM) academy as well as a liberal arts academy where students can pursue a specific endorsement on their diplomas. He said the district is proposing that the school develop more partnerships with local businesses where students can intern.

The Schools of the Future initiative aims to create three more pre-K classrooms over three years throughout the district. This year McDonald secured a $1 million grant to create three pre-K classrooms in Rockland and Owls Head, with the goal of increasing student achievement, literacy and math attainment. He said he also intends to return world languages programs to the elementary schools. The plan would also expand the Responsive Class program across the district, which focuses on teaching techniques for improving student emotional behavior and learning. 

The program consists of several teaching strategies designed to improve discipline and the classroom environment, such as morning meetings, creating classroom rules, setting expectations, positive teacher language, collaborative problem solving and involving families. McDonald’s plan would also continue to build its restorative justice approach to discipline, which emphasizes bringing together victims and offenders to solve conflicts and repair harm done. 

Upgrading Building Efficiency 

For the past year, Siemens Energy has been monitoring energy use and studying the facilities to develop the district’s efficiency plan. The company says its plan will not only improve the environment inside the buildings, but also save enough money to pay for the project, using savings from the  existing utility and operational budget without the need for additional tax money. According to Siemens contracting leader Tom Seekins, the company will guarantee its work will hold up for at least 17 years, which will make the buildings “look like they’re 2015” while saving the $40 million it would cost to build a new school.

“Using that operational savings from the schools, it will definitely be the most creative project that any school has done in Maine that I’ve ever seen or heard of,” said Seekins.

 


The construction plan would include installing all new energy-efficiency windows at Oceanside East, a new front lobby and entranceway, a cafeteria expansion and a new ventilation system to improve the school’s efficiency and air quality. New heating automation systems would be installed to cut down on the need for employees to constantly check on the heat in the building. 

“In the high school it’ll be 10 degrees outside, but the windows are open,” said RSU 13 vice chair Loren Andrews. “We’re just pouring money out the windows, so when we make these changes in these facilities, in the windows and in the structures, that’s how you make the savings.”

Business manager Peter Orne added that with the 17-year guarantee, the upgrades will also provide predictability in the budget so that the district doesn’t have to provide emergency funding to fix buildings, boilers and oil tanks. 

The board is tentatively scheduled to vote on whether to adopt the proposals on November 5. If the board supports the Schools of the Future plan, the district will begin forming school transition teams. The transition of the schools could begin as early as next fall, and the offices transitioned over in the summer and fall of 2017. If approved, the plan would also require voters in South Thomaston, Thomaston, and Rockland to hold referendums to approve closing Gilford Butler, Lury Libby and the McLain School. 

If any of the towns failed to garner two-thirds support for either of the closures, they would have to come up with their own money to keep the buildings operating. Pending approval of the Schools of the Future plan by the RSU board, a referendum could be held as early as late winter. The expansion of the Owls Head school could be finished by next fall if all goes according to plan. 

However, the plan could be derailed if the November 3 ballot initiative in Rockland to start the process of Rockland’s withdrawal from the district passes. 

Withdrawal Battle Adds Complications

The impetus for the Schools of the Future initiative began in the summer of 2014, when the RSU 13 board directed the administration to come up with a plan that would focus on improving the curriculum and instruction while creating a quality learning environment. The plan also called for “maximizing efficient use of resources” and the possible closing or renovation of some facilities. But after years of rising costs due to state cuts and a steady decline in student enrollment hastened by the withdrawal of St. George this year, some members of the Rockland City Council and two Rockland RSU board members are backing a citizen referendum to initiate the city’s withdrawal from the district. If approved, the measure would authorize Rockland to spend $20,000 to form a special committee to study the impact of withdrawal. The committee would then need to develop a plan to submit to the state Department of Education for approval, which would ultimately be followed by several more steps, including another election. The RSU has said it will likely also hire its own consultant.

RSU 13 Board Chair Steve Roberts has blasted the withdrawal effort as an attempt to “sabotage” the Schools of the Future initiative by members of the school board who have been frustrated with the board’s lack of action on closing schools since the two Rockland and Thomaston area districts were forced by state law to merge in 2009. But unlike past efforts to consolidate, he said there has been more input from the community and substantial work put in to developing the latest plan. 

Additionally, RSU 13 administrators have warned that a withdrawal could potentially cost Rockland taxpayers between $1.5 and $2.6 million due to lost efficiencies and state per-pupil subsidy. Rockland currently pays $450 less per student than the rest of the district, according to the district. Orne maintains that the rest of the district could be forced to come up with another $1.5 million, including Thomaston ($450,000), Cushing ($375,000), and Owls Head and South Thomaston (each $337,000).

However, referendum supporter Will Clayton, who is also a Rockland city councilor and the parent of two children in the district, said the withdrawal initiative is just meant to start a conversation. 

“I don’t know if withdrawing is the correct answer or not,” said Clayton, “but I do know that over the last half dozen years or so, that it’s not working. And the last thing we want to see is have it continue.” 

Clayton praised the Schools of the Future plan, but said he is still concerned about whether the towns would be stuck with the buildings if they voted to close them and how staffing levels would be impacted by the consolidation. He disputed the administration’s contention that the district’s plan couldn’t move forward if the referendum is successful.  

However, Seekins said the efficiency plan would need the support of the community in order to secure the support of banks for financing. Roberts added that some of the cost of the proposed renovations in the high school would be covered by consolidating facilities in other towns. 

“I don’t know that we could get the communities to agree to this plan if Rockland decides to investigate withdrawal,” said Roberts. “Until that’s settled, it’s just going to cause such chaos in regards to what the future is in the school district.”

McDonald agreed. 

“We’d have to totally rethink our approach,” said McDonald. “Not to say we still couldn’t do some things, but it would seriously hamper our ability to move this project forward.”

Meanwhile, Roberts says he will be mounting a campaign to defeat the withdrawal referendum in order to allow the district plan to have a chance to move forward.

“In a one-to-one dollar scenario, it’s to the advantage to the student that we stay together, but it’s not just a one-to-one,” said Roberts. “[A withdrawal] is going to wind up costing RSU 13 more, and it’s going to wind up costing Rockland through the nose.”

The RSU Board of Directors will be holding a workshop to discuss the Schools of the Future proposals on Thursday, October 15, at 5:30 p.m. at the McLain School. The district will also be holding a series of community forums during October in all the towns in RSU 13.