Finding economies of scale in a one-room schoolhouse

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Everybody thinks they know what’s best for the other guy. As bureaucrats and bean counters in Augusta assure us there are big savings in school district consolidation, we on Matinicus sit out here in the teeth of the gale and speculate on what this “simplification” means for us.

Two-square-mile Matinicus Island lies roughly 23 miles southeast of Rockland. This community of fewer than 100 people is not connected, physically or legally, with any other town. There is no cable, no “daily boat,” and no possibility to commute. We run our own power company and school district, which consists of one-room for kindergarten through eighth-grade in one school.

The only full-time work is lobstering, unless you are the one – and only – schoolteacher.

Matinicus has been inhabited by year-round families for more than two centuries; we are not a few eccentrics conducting an experiment in ledge-pile homesteading. We are not an artist’s colony, a wealthy summer playground, or a “step backward in time.”

I keep the books for SAD 65, perhaps the smallest school administrative district in Maine. (Our school has no principal or secretary, just a part-time superintendent, and an apolitical school board elected at town meeting.) I came to Matinicus in 1987 as the teacher, and settled here. My children attended our school. Allow me, then, to offer some thoughts on consolidation.

Experience has taught us islanders that explaining our life to mainland people who work behind a desk is like discussing Kierkegaard with a dog. They just look at you funny. Transportation and logistical details that interfere with expanding the school’s offerings sound, to the well-meaning, like we islanders are just being obstinate, miserly, or are benighted savages who need ushering into the modern day.

A one-room school is a wonderful thing, but it cannot be all things to all people. Children don’t “fall though the cracks,” get lost in huge classes or waste time fidgeting in lines or riding a bus before daylight. They also don’t have a building full of specialists, extensive sports programs or expensive art studios and labs.

It’s a trade-off. Now some on Matinicus worry that only those programs we lack – rather than the areas where we excel – will appear on the radar of the new “superdistrict.”

It’s assumed consolidation will be cost-effective, because it will decrease administrative personnel. I suppose this means my part-time bookkeeper’s job, which is fine, but that’s as much reduction potential we have. Can a mainland superintendent properly interview a teacher for a job that requires isolation, a lack of peers and support services and placement into a community from which there’s no going home from work?

Not if they know don’t know how this job, and this life, works.

Like other towns without high schools, Matinicus pays the state designated “out-of-town student” tuition and sends students to the public school of their choice, usually based on where the student has family or friends with whom to board. Otherwise, the island contributes this equivalent towards a boarding school tuition.

Since any larger district would include one high school or more, is it assumed Matinicus students must attend one of those? That would not do, as the boarding situation cannot be assured. Island families must be offered the choice of any school where acceptable boarding is available, regardless of district.

Economies-of-scale don’t mean much here. There is no way to drive down the cost-per-pupil into an “average” range, when there are somewhere between zero and 12 students, over nine grades, at any time. (Yes, zero. Recently, when the school had no students, we chose to keep the school legally open, and sure enough, students came back.)

Perhaps consolidation would result in additional monies directed toward our little school, but we’re not holding our breath. At present, the state’s financial contribution to SAD 65 is merely incidental. This year, the monthly local allocation to the school – from Matinicus property taxes – is roughly 17 times the state’s contribution.

With what authority then, some of the experts leaning over the hood of the pickup truck have asked, does the state give orders?

Our students have no other option; they cannot go elsewhere for elementary school. Most agree the school is a central and essential component of year-round community, the loss of which would be sad, and unnecessary. The costs of operating a one-room school will always be high, and we accept that. As long as it is our money, and our community decision on whether or not it’s money well spent, our school will be safe.

Can the same be said if it’s run by people whose primary obligation is to the bottom line?

Eva Murray, of Matinicus, is a 1985 graduate of Bates College, and serves, or has served, as the island’s schoolteacher, clerk, treasurer, recycling coordinator, and EMT. She is a frequent contributor to Maine newspapers.

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