June 23 was a sad day for students in Lubec, one of Maine’s most picturesque towns, on the Canadian border just south of Eastport. The town voted 269-230 to close Lubec Consolidated High School, confirming the school board’s 4-1 vote.

Lubec’s is the first Maine public high school in decades to close without an immediate replacement. But unless things change, it is unlikely to be the last.

This year’s graduating class had nine students and total enrollment was just 37. It’s not clear how much money the town will save, since students now have a choice of high schools in Eastport, Machias and East Machias, with varying tuition rates. But in light of state subsidy cuts and dwindling enrollment, voters felt they had no choice. That also needs to change.

For Lubec is hardly alone in trying to maintain a very small high school in a high-tech age. Reports abound on the need to improve academic performance to compete globally, yet it’s hard to see how many Maine high schools can even maintain their current curriculums, let alone expand them.

Besides Lubec, eight high schools now enroll fewer than 100 students. Another 28 more have between 100 and 300 students. About one-third of our high schools have fewer than 300 students.

Why is 300 a significant number? That was the minimum size the Sinclair Act, which led to Maine’s first regional schools, established for comprehensive high schools. It was passed in 1957, and a half-century later, it’s even less likely that high schools below that size can offer comprehensive schooling.

This points up one of the major flaws of the school-consolidation law passed in 2007 and upheld at referendum two years later. The consolidation effort deliberately focused only on school district administration, aimed at reducing the number of superintendents.

But students aren’t educated at superintendents’ offices, they are educated in schools. So far, the state has done nothing to help schools in rural areas look for other ways to provide a better education.

Part of the sadness in Lubec is that it didn’t have to come to this. Back in 2003, when the most recent list of state-approved construction projects came out, Machias High School was on it. Since state policy does not allow direct replacement of schools this small (130 students), Machias was encouraged to talk with neighboring towns, such as Lubec, about a regional school.

The effort never got off the ground. Machias ultimately rejected what would have been a $30 million high school, completely state-funded — the first time that’s ever happened. The high school plan might have been before its time. At that point, there was no state effort toward consolidation, administrative or otherwise, and no real context for the intensive conversations that would have been needed.

Even now, such a plan would face considerable odds in Washington County, one of Maine’s most sparsely populated regions, where local control is fiercely guarded. The fiscal crisis that has led to huge cuts in state aid has thus far produced remarkably little change.

Yet continuing with the long, slow decline of public high schools can hardly be acceptable to students, their parents, or the communities in which they live. It’s true that smaller schools are more expensive to operate, but the real problem is educational. At one time, Maine ranked favorably in indicators such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one of the most reliable measurements available. Now it’s only average, despite spending that is  well above national norms.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that one of the problems is how our schools, and not just our school districts, are organized.

Even at its reduced levels, state aid to education is still the largest single item in the state budget, comprising nearly a third of all spending. The next governor must set a high priority on seeing how the so-far-modest results of administrative consolidation can be expanded to benefit students, and not just taxpayers

A logical place to start would be the new state construction list that will be unveiled next year. One of the least popular aspects of the consolidation law is that it provided no incentives to cooperate with other districts, only penalties for districts that failed to comply.

Incentives for building regional schools would be the among the most compelling the state could offer. That’s how the Sinclair Act worked and how a similar effort could work today.

If we maintain the state and local status quo, however, there will be sad days for many more students in the years ahead.


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