Friday night I went up north to cover an informational meeting about the various plans to reform Maine's educational system. The main one is from the governor, who has written the purported savings into his proposed budget, making it problematic. For the rural folks out here in one of the last schools before you get to Quebec, the prospect of being pulled into a consolidated district is upsetting, and not at all because of cost. One woman noted that she knows a kid whose father is a border guard and he's already spending two hours on the bus EACH WAY -- sending him, and these other remote kids, to a school nearly another hour away seems cruel and counterproductive.
People mentioned cost, but only because the governor's proposal allows them to keep their teacher/student ratios intact, if they want to pay the full cost of the additional teachers, and would guarantee that no schools would close -- if they wanted to pay the cost of running a school in addition to the taxes they'd be paying to the consolidated district.
But their chief concern is distance and quality of education. They can't see putting their kids on buses for another hour each way in order to go from grade level sizes of 75 to grade level sizes of a couple of hundred -- especially since their little district was rated sixth best in Maine a few years ago. "It's like trading a Cadillac for a Yugo," said a truck driver in the audience.
And he was fairly typical of the people there -- articulate, passionate blue-collar country people. I looked around and I felt like I was back in Star Lake. As you can see in this picture, there were plenty of people in the audience much too old to have kids in school. But they have grandchildren or great-grandchildren or neighbor kids in the school and a sense that these are THEIR kids we're talking about. This is the kind of place where people go to the Senior Play even if they don't have a kid in it. As it happened, there was a middle school basketball tournament going on in the gym at the same time, the parking lots were full and cars were parked down the road for quite a way.
The four guys facing the crowd were the speakers. There are no neckties in this part of the country, as far as I can tell. (Actually, that's an exaggeration. The town manager in Farmington wears one, as does the local Edward Jones guy.) At the rostrum is the school superintendent. The guy in the red shirt is our State Senator, Walt, who I was meeting in person for the first time but have talked to on the phone. I think he's a retired teacher. The guy in the flannel shirt and vest is one of our reps, Tom, who is an environmental engineer for International Paper. The guy in the maroon sweater is also a state rep, from the far northwest, and a retired dairy farmer.
They each got up and spoke for a little while, but certainly less than 10 minutes each. Then it was a back and forth with the people in the room, very casual, only one "speech" and that from a genial old guy who everyone seemed to expect it from and who was pretty interesting anyway. The meeting lasted for about an hour and a half and then, of course, we all stood around and talked to each other for another half hour or so.
I got home a little after 10. It was nine degrees above zero and every star in the universe was visible overhead -- it was hard to pick out the constellations, you could see so many other stars.