Outside forces drive our decision on schools
Members of the Wiscasset Educational Research Panel (WERP) have continued to research our choices for educating our students at a fair cost to taxpayers while at the same time providing good educational choices for our children. This is the first of a series of articles before the vote to withdraw from the RSU in November.
Certain selectmen continue to wish for economic growth that would allow keeping all the Wiscasset school buildings open. Their hopes for a business renaissance is not likely to come to Wiscasset nor Lincoln County.
Manufacturing and distribution companies look for several things when deciding to relocate or open a business: low taxes; good schools for their employees' children; good transportation access; and an available trained and educated work force.
Unfortunately, we have little to offer in this regard.
Wiscasset couldn’t attract any businesses during the ultra low tax years of Maine Yankee coupled with the excellent rankings of our schools during that time. Why should we expect to attract businesses now with our very high taxes and declining school test scores and ranking?
Our high school was the second highest rated in Maine during the 1970s. It is now has the highest dropout rate for all traditional high schools under the supervision of the RSU.
We are also handicapped by our well deserved reputation as a transportation bottleneck with a lack of ready access to major highways. We recently learned that Coastal Enterprises is planning to relocate a large percentage of their workforce for this very reason.
Our aging population is working against increasing student enrollment as well. Maine is now the oldest state in the country and Lincoln County is the oldest county in Maine. Maine is only one of two states where the death rate exceeded the birth rate for the last two years. The well known economist, Charles Lawton, highlighted our county in the economic section of the Sunday Portland Press Herald on July 14, 2013.
One significant statistic, among others, was that only 54 percent of our income now comes from employee earnings with 31 percent of the income coming from workers commuting outside the county. The other 47 percent of income came from dividends, interest, and transfer payments (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc).
Wiscasset used to be a magnet for young families because of low taxes and our excellent school system. The town was a highly desirable “bedroom community.” To quote the National Board of Realtors at Realtor.com: “We’ve heard time and again from home buyers that schools really matter when searching for a new home.” Their website along with others now clearly show the rankings of the school system for every home listed. This is troubling for those looking to sell their homes in Wiscasset.
Quality schools come in different forms, either dedicated K-12, K-8 with high school children being given choice, or no schools with total school choice. In small school systems and towns, the school choice is a big draw because parents can tailor the school to their individual child’s needs. To have a standard comprehensive curriculum offering the many class choices required, it takes a minimum of 200 students with 300 and up the best option. We are now well below that in the high school building and dropping rapidly. We repeatedly graduate less than 35 students a year including tuition students.
Wiscasset has the opportunity in November to leave RSU 12 and tailor a school system that fits our population and finances. Currently 72 percent of our property tax is for schools. The seven other towns in the RSU have control of our school taxes. The last frightening item is that four out of the eight towns in the RSU are voting to withdraw from the RSU. This would result in our taxes rising again from the loss of revenue and a heavier burden of shouldering the cost of a half empty high school and middle school.
The Superintendent of RSU 12 calculated that the impact of Westport alone leaving would cost the RSU over $700,000. Add to that Palermo and Windsor and the number grows. The RSU has claimed they haven’t even addressed this fact yet.
Our next articles will include school statistics and the options open to Wiscasset if and once we leave the RSU.