Once the debate got going on whether Lewiston and Auburn should become one city, Michelle Crowley’s mock trial class at Lewiston High School was anything but quiet. Lennon LaBelle, foreground, disagrees as Matt Hird, standing, makes a point. LaBelle and Hird are against the consolidation of the two cities. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Editor’s note: The Sun Journal reached out to school departments in Lewiston and Auburn and asked to sit down with students to hear their views on the local consolidation question. This story is a product of discussions at Lewiston High School and Auburn Middle School.
In Michelle Crowley’s mock trial class at Lewiston High School, a “tag team” debate unfolded last week over the proposed merger of Lewiston and Auburn.
Students sat in two groups based on which side they took on the issue, and there was an obvious divide. On one side, 13 students argued against the merger; on the other, three debated in favor of it.
The class, which is an extracurricular program after school, is made up of some of the sharpest minds in the school. Ranging from sophomores to seniors, it features three class presidents.
While the opposing merger campaigns have been arguing over what’s best for the next generation, those young people have been talking, too.
“There is so much work that has to go into this; it’s going to be so expensive,” said Matt Hird, kicking off the debate. Hird is a student representative on the Lewiston School Committee.
“I just think it’s crazy to put all this money into this, just to save peanuts compared to what the entire budget is,” he said.
After the first argument was pitched by Hird, multiple hands went up — way up — and the conversation flowed for an hour. The debate was structured, but rebuttals came hard and fast. Crowley did her best to curb interruptions, while students (sometimes) attempted to contain outbursts.
Shawn-Michael Chabot said, “It’s just going to be a logistical nightmare” folding two governments into one.
Along with job losses among city workers, said Roslynn Wailus, she’s not convinced that combined police and fire departments would make people safer.
As for education, students struggled to picture a combined school department. Lennon LaBelle said he’s proud of Lewiston’s schools and he thinks trying to combine the values of two school districts would be “a mess.”
Alex Robert, also arguing against the merger, said he’s not convinced that Lewiston-Auburn has the economic status to take on more debt to accomplish “something that we’re not 100 percent confident will work.”
The financial costs, and savings, of the consolidation have been the central arguments between the opposing campaigns.
Rachel Ouellette, one of three arguing for the merger, was the most outspoken. She attempted rebuttals for nearly every point made by the anti-merger-heavy classroom, to the point where she pretty much remained standing. She said taxes would eventually go down in Lewiston, and that the education system would benefit from specialized programming.
“Business will have better opportunities,” she said, later adding that with a workforce that’s expected to decline, a merger “could attract new people, young people, educated people.”
Another student said that it seems like it’s “the businessmen who want this to go through, but if you ask the citizens, most of the time their answer is no. No one is really listening to the representations of the communities.”
More hands shot up.
Students in both cities had a few thoughts in common. One was that there seem to be too many big questions left unanswered.
“There’s no guarantee the changes will occur in a positive way,” Hope Bowen said during the mock trial class. “I think that’s why it makes a lot of people nervous or against it.”
In Auburn, a group of six middle schoolers agreed to talk about the merger, and the breakdown of opinions was about the same.
Ava Braunscheidel said she thinks that for many people, including herself, it comes down to too many unknowns.
“There’s no guarantees,” she said. “A lot of people are doubting it because of that.”
Later, while talking about the conflicting arguments over the merger, she added, “It could either make Lewiston and Auburn amazing, or it could destroy us.”
Of the six Auburn students who gave their opinions, five said they would vote no if they could, and one was still undecided. Several reasons were given: hometown and school pride, identity, and too many questions about money.
The middle school students, especially, had been talking to their parents, who were all opposed, but the students had also been having their own discussions at school, both in the classrooms and in the hallways.
Auburn middle-schooler Attigan Knight hit on another talking point that’s recurring among students: What would happen to the current rivalry between the schools? Would it have the same spirit?
Knight, who plays soccer, doesn’t think so. He also believes that it could lead to students trying to choose a high school based on the success of its athletic programs, rather than where they live.
Part of One LA’s campaign pitch has been that a combined school department could create more specialized programming. If that happened, Braunscheidel said, perhaps it could attract new people to the area.
Gage Ducharme said one of the issues he’s been hearing during class discussions in Auburn is over the amount of debt each city carries. Lewiston has about double that of Auburn, and he said many people are worried about taking on that debt.
However, the consolidation would create different tax rates for residents of each city, until the previous debt is paid off.
Devon Sirois, still undecided, said a merger has the potential to bring together some of the smartest people in both cities.
“If we merge, we might have more knowledge of what we can do to help make our cities better,” he said.
He also said if it could attract more businesses that would result in more jobs.
“If people from outside Lewiston and Auburn saw the success rate, it could attract them, it could attract new companies and stuff,” Braunscheidel said.
Another common thread among young people, as well adults, is the sense of community in each city.
Julia Pelletier said Auburn is known as having independent and strong people. All of the students at the middle school agreed that they’re proud of being from Auburn.
“You’re accustomed to saying, ‘I’m from Auburn,’ and you’re proud of that,” Braunscheidel said.
Ducharme said he thinks the entire area would be referred to as Lewiston, instead of Lewiston-Auburn, just because it’s easier.
The proposed consolidated name of Lewiston-Auburn didn’t excite them, either. If they had their pick, Braunscheidel likes Lewburn; Sirois liked Great Falls.
Sue Callahan, one of the students’ social studies teachers who sat in on the discussion, said she’s been hearing a lot of “no” coming from everyone, including students. She guessed that much of the conversation had by the middle-schoolers is at home with parents.
Growing up in Auburn, she said she could identify with “that hometown pride.”
“It’s more than just the economic piece,” she said.
During both discussions, the Sun Journal asked students if they thought the merger could eventually help keep young people, like themselves, living and working in the area.
In Lewiston, Kyra Physic said the merger could create a reasonably sized city that could create more city-like opportunities that young people look for, while retaining the feel of a smaller community.
Many of the students said they’ll be looking for cities with interesting things to do, and that they didn’t think Lewiston and Auburn “are there yet.”
“There’s a lot of small towns that have that without merging,” said Hunter Landry, listing off cities including Brunswick and Freeport.
“People are not going to a city because the population is big,” Hird said. “I’m going to a city because of restaurants like (in) the Old Port, entertainment everywhere you go, and actual jobs.”
“I’ve noticed in doing college searches that I’m looking for a place that has a sense of community,” Bowen said. She likes the Lewiston community but doesn’t like what she sees picturing a merged city. “With One LA, I don’t think we’ll have that same sense of community.”
Throughout the onslaught from her classmates, Ouellette stood her ground.
“The money we’ll save from combining is tax money we’ll have in pocket to make L-A a better place for tourists to come, to make it a better place for businesses to have a start,” she said.
A few days later, at Auburn Middle School, Braunscheidel said that adding to the list of unknowns is: What happens if the merger passes and it’s not successful?
“Would we go back to being two different towns?” she said.
“Or would we try to merge with another town?” Ducharme asked.
The group burst into laughter.
Alexandra Cullen, a student at Bates College, contributed to this report.
Lewiston High School teacher Michelle Crowley keeps track of points made on both sides of the merger debate during her mock trial class. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Auburn Middle School student Ava Braunscheidel is against consolidating Lewiston and Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Alex Robert, back left, Hope Bowen, front left, Lennon LaBelle and Kyra Physic all have points to make during a debate on whether or not Lewiston and Auburn should merge. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Auburn Middle School student Devon Sirois is undecided about consolidating Lewiston and Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Rachael Ouellette made many arguments in favor of combining the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Auburn Middle School student Attigan Knight is against consolidating Lewiston and Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Auburn Middle School student Julia Pelletier is against consolidating Lewiston and Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)