Town of Rome, Maine

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May 2017 Update from Rome's School Board Director

Full report in pdf


A quick update:

New Assistant Superintendent: Our new Superintendent (to be) has selected Keith Morin to be our new Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic officer.  Most critically Keith will work with me and Educational Programming Committee on helping RSU 18 set the standard for academic excellence amongst public schools in Maine. I was not on the selection committee however I am told the committee was broad based and included students, members of the school board and others (I believe faculty members). Keith is currently the Principal at Winthrop High School. He has served as assistant principal and as a high school social studies teacher at Lawrence high school. He has a master degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from the University of Maine and is a graduate of U Maine Farmington. One of Keith’s strengths is a knowledge of practical implementation of the proficiency based learning requirements. That is much needed!

Kathy Harris-Smedberg will return as principal of the Williams School from her sabbatical (to complete her PhD) on Monday, May 15. We just learned she is to become the assistant superintendent and chief academic officer in the Bangor Schools. We will miss her. I sincerely hope she will come back to help us some time in the future.

The 2017/18 Budget is now largely formulated. We have had several public working sessions and hearings. There has been an unusual amount of positive discussion about academics, academic excellence and helping the students under our stewardship succeed (!). I have been impressed. I have not heard a single voice that is opposed to the budget in any of the meetings (also a first for me!).

Budget and Rome: It is hard to tell what the impact maybe for Rome since the expense budget is only part of the story. The rest of the story is the split between the towns and also the State contribution (which appears to continue to drop). It appears both of those items may work to raise our net town tax. However, as I have pointed out earlier, given that so much of our school tax is paid by nonresidents, RSU 18 education is a huge bargain for Rome residents. Our per student tuition cost for our students as paid by Rome residents is extremely modest and for sure a bargain given the quality of the education.

Additional Local Funds: That being said, several of us remain concerned about the portion of the “RSU 18 additional local funds” that Rome has to pay. We have been successful in getting the “Cost Sharing Committee” to reconvene to reconsider this issue. It was a hard fought team effort to cause that to happen. Kudos to our Rome Selectmen, committee members in Belgrade and China, and even positive influence from some in Oakland! The School Board voted unanimously to reconvene the committee! Now  we have to go the next step and help all five towns converge on the thought that the best way to achieve an enduring, solution that draws the towns together as a team with a focus on our students’ academic success, is to create an equitable form of financial team work amongst the five towns!

Article on the State money: It appears the legislature may increase the amount of State support for public schools. This increase for RSU 18 could be between $500,000 and $750,000. It is all unclear and will not be resolved until after our budget and revenue plan is approved by the voters. So we, the School Board, have included a warrant article to allow these funds to be allocated if indeed they appear. The article would rebate 50% of the “new” money to the towns that get state funds, 25% to the students in the form of additional K-3 educators, facilities upgrades and resolution of our large ($750,000) nutrition program unresolved debt. The final 25% would go the “General Fund” which is a reserve fund for unexpected and emergent expenses. Regrettably Rome will receive none of the 50% rebate. On the other hand the other two allocations are for the good of our students. I support this warrant, because it is one that I think all five towns can support. I could have proposed to have 100% go for the students but it is unlikely that would have carried the day – so this is a reasonable compromise. 

Academic excellence: I am heartened to hear, at every Board meeting, budget meeting and public interaction, an increased focus on helping the children under our stewardship achieve the very best academic start in life we can collectively afford. This is really great. This is what public education is all about. And we are starting to see results! These wonderful young men and women of Rome, who are under our stewardship, deserve the very best start in life that we can afford to provide. I don’t think we are there yet, but for sure I see things heading in the right direction.

Academic options exploratory committee: Our Selectmen are convening this committee. For sure there are good reasons for a group of impartial Rome resident’s to review the situation. If you are interested I hope you will apply with the Select Board. We really need a hard, independent look at the facts in order to help guide a town decision.

Yours in helping our students by helping RSU 18 set the standard for academic excellence for public schools in Maine.


Dr. Andrew Cook



p.s. If you want to talk or have thoughts, please call me or email me!

[email protected]

A quick update – for the People of Rome (April 2017)

Full report in pdf


Come to the school Board meeting, this Wednesday 7 PM at the Middle school. The assistant Chief State Fire Marshall Rich McCarthy will be speaking. Rich has a child in our school district and has personally done fire safety walk downs in each of our facilities, schools and buildings.  What he has to say is significant. It is about our schools.

We had two school budget works shops last week. They went very well. Several people spoke up for ensuring a quality education for our students. In particular one requested an additional third grade teacher at Belgrade Central (the class sizes are in the low 20’s right now). Another asked for more funding for teacher and teacher’s aide training (an amount was not suggested but I suggested an additional $100,000). A concern was raised that our special needs student teaching aids may not be getting the behavioral training that might help them in their duties. On the other hand one person spoke out about concern for those on fixed incomes and the impact of the school budget on them.


More people spoke up for achieving an excellent education for the young men and women under our stewardship than I have even heard in my three years on the board. I was impressed. The entire tone of the meetings was favorable and supporting. And this is in spite of the increases the budget shows and the decline in state support that we are expecting. I think people really are concerned about the future these young men and women will face. People really want to do the best we can afford to help them get a very good start in lifeI know we in Rome want to provide the very best education we can afford for these important young men and women from our town.


Attached here are two interesting items the Superintendent sent. The first shows many of the school’s successes. 70% of our graduates plan to go to a 4 year undergraduate school, a two year school or join the military. 126 of our 2016 graduates took collegiate advanced placement exams. Of those 69% got a 3 or better on a scale of 1 to 5. That means they can place out of one or two college semesters of the subject they took the exam in. And we have 273 students “dual enrolled” at Thomas College or KVCC. This means they are taking college level courses in high school, and getting credit for that! Further we have had graduates go to some very good colleges: Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, MIT, Northeastern, NYU, Tufts, the University of Rochester and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (and many more – see the attachment).


On the other hand our SAT scores are not where we want them. Our 2017 class had an average SAT score of 974 versus a Maine State average of 993. We want to set the standard of academic excellence for public schools in Maine. Clearly we are not there yet. Further Tom Burton, who is on the School Board and the head Swimming Coach at Colby, pointed out that as schools move to “proficiency based” scoring systems colleges lean more heavily on SAT scores to judge applicants. So SAT scores matter even more for our students– for us!


The other attachment shows some ratios for our district expenditures versus others. Most notable is the chart below.  It shows that we are spending more on actual education as a percent of the budget than many of our neighbors (DOE means Department of Education). This is great!

We are on a mission here. Our goal is to ensure that the young men and women from Rome (and the entire school district) get the best academic start in life we can collectively afford. Times are getting more demanding: we have imposed special education requirements, more special needs students, imposed “proficiency based learning” requirements, imposed food service requirements, and reductions in State funding. And our economy is demanding better educated graduates – educated however in things many of us don’t even know about (or didn’t even exist when we were young) – database management, use of tools like Excel, applied knowledge of statistics, hands on experience with real world things (wood working, metal forming, writing, programming, web page development, computer generated imagery, etc. ). 

I am optimistic that – with your support and concern – we can truly have our school district set the standard for academic excellence for public schools in Maine.

And I can assure you, because of your support, Rome is leading the charge!

Please be in touch with your thoughts and concerns. And do sign up to be on our Academic Options Assessment Committee – it is well worth our time!

Rome - a great place to live and grow up!

Dr. Andrew Cook


RSU 18 Budget Workshops

Dr. Cook's message regarding RSU 18 Budget Workshops
held on March 28-29

Parents, voters & concerned real estate tax payers, I encourage you to attend these budget workshops. This is your opportunity to impact the RSU 18 2017/18 budget.


The Good news:

Our goal is to be sure our Rome students get the best educational start in life we can afford. Further the School Board aspires to have RSU 18 set the standard of excellence for public school education in Maine. While we still have a good distance to go to get there, we are making progress. For example:

  1. Our Math Counts team finished fifth recently in the State. This is a good step in showing that RSU 18 is working to set the standard of academic excellence for public school education in Maine.  A special congratulations to Taryn Drolet, a grade 8 student at Messalonskee Middle School. Taryn took 2nd place at the State MathCounts Championship and will move on to represent Maine in the Nationals in Orlando, FL!
  2. Our graduation rate is 94%. This is well above the 84% rate when the RSU was formed and significantly above the Maine State rate and the national rate.
  3. Our high school (9-12) dropout rate is 1.3% and if we include the Middle School (grades 7-12) our dropout rate it is 0.86%, again both values are well below the State and National rates.
  4. The District got a $26,655.00 reimbursement check from Efficiency Maine for the good work it has done in making our facilities more energy efficient.
  5. The RSU was awarded $255,000 in State “revolving renovation” loans to make structural and safety upgrades to three of our schools including Belgrade Central. These are a good thing since ultimately the State “forgives” 44% of the loan. This means the State is essentially handing us $112,200.00
  6. In our 2017/18 budget (being developed) we are allocating 45.17% of the budget to “regular instruction.” That means money actually going to teaching. This is better than the State average of 40.76%.
  7. Our “System and School Administration” portion of the budget is just 5.68% of the budget versus a State average of 8.41%. So we are devoting more of the budget to teaching and less to administration than the Maine State average!
  8. And our girl’s basket team took first in the State and the boy’s came in second!


The not quite as good news:

  1. It appears the State may reduce its funding to our school district by $774,695.89 versus last year. This is not known for sure but may happen. That would mean that the tax payers would have to make up 2.15% of the budget’s “lost” revenue.
  2. Our food service operation has been caught in a bind of increased Federal food specifications, increased numbers of “free and reduced” meals we are serving, and a “capped” State and Federal compensation and reimbursement system. The net result is that the food service has been operating at a substantial loss for years.
    1. Our auditors have told us this cannot continue and we need to make up the loss.
    2. The food service operation is projected this year to be cumulatively about ½ a million dollars in debt. That must somehow be made up.
    3. We, the Board, have approved a very modest lunch price increase but the service will continue to lose money given the Federal and State constraints.
    4. As a result the shortfall will fall to us, the tax payers, to makeup. This year that will be approximately $50,000 in additional funds needed from us all.
    5. In order to retire this substantial unfunded debt the tax payer contribution amount is projected to rise over time to an ultimate value of $275,000 per year (10 years from now).
  3. We continue to absorb an ever greater portion of the teacher retirement fund obligations. These were in the past covered by the state however that cost has been systematically transferred to the local school districts. This year we pick up another $100,370.00.
  4. Health care costs for our employees continue to rise. This year (despite our very successful “wellness Program”) those premiums will go up $265,937.80 (5.75% increase).
  5. Our special needs student population has risen. This year it is up 10% to >480 students (roughly 16% of our total school population). This has resulted in an 8.83 % increase in that budget line item.
  6. In addition each of our school buildings is in need to attention. These are older buildings that have served us all well, but just like your home and car, they need attention and maintenance. And just like your home and car, because these schools house our children, it is critically important that we take care with their health and safety.
    1. For this reason the Board just approved the preparation of applications for several addition projects from the State “Revolving renovation Fund.”
    2. However even that is inadequate. Our Community Facilities Committee has determined that we have a substantial (>$25M) amount of remedial investment we need to make in these wonderful schools – and we have not yet addressed that topic fully.
  7. And for sure our school scores on various standardized tests are not where we want them to be. We are not yet “setting the standard of excellence for public school education in Maine.” We are improving but we, to quote Robert Frost, have “miles to go before we sleep!”


The bottom line:

We are doing better for those important young men and women of Rome who are under our collective stewardship. But it is costing us more.


My rough calculations from the first draft expense and revenue budget the Superintendent presented last week suggests that the Rome Tax payer contribution will increase 5.23% versus last year despite a steadily declining Rome school population.


So is it worth it? Should you support this school district? My perspective:

  1. We in Rome are getting a great deal. We are paying $15,668.89/student in Rome for their education. Consider:
    1. The Maine average private school tuition is $21,576!
    2. A large portion of our school taxes are paid by nonresidents. Regrettably I don’t have an exact figure as to what portion of our taxes are paid by non-Rome residents. I have heard numbers ranging from 50% to 85%. The table below shows, using these figures, how much we, the residents actually pay per student.
  2. These are very low tuition figures. This education is, for us, a great deal!
  3. Consider the impact on the children under our stewardship, and the potential impact on our town of getting these young men and women an excellent academic start in life.
    1. If we assume, for an average education, each of them earns $50,000/yr. for their 40 year career then their total earnings would be $2M.
    2. If however we help them to get an excellent education, the best in Maine, it would be reasonable to expect their average earnings would be $100,000/yr. That would yield life time earnings of $4,000,000 – a doubling of their earnings!
    3. And indeed some of them would likely do much better! Remember, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than the other guy!
    4. And for sure they will remember that great place they lived (and grew up) and want to return, with their children – to live or just for the summer. But they will return! And they will bring business (their money, or even their own businesses) with them.
      1. Think big – yes we could be the home of the next Google, Twitter, credit card call center, server hub, Amazon warehouse,
      2. It can happen. There is no special reason why it cannot happen here!
      3. There is a special reason why it can – those 117 scholars under our care!
    5. In fact our 117 scholars in Rome represent $500M in life time earning potential (or more!). This is serious money. These are serious people. They deserve our serious attention and for sure it is well worth it for us to make a serious investment in their future.
  4. Candidly, and this may surprise you, I think we are significantly underspending on their education. That is one of the reasons why the Town voted recently to form an ”Academic Options Committee.” We want to look at the situation, the cost and the academic result and see if we can do even better for these young men and women.


Do I think we should cover for the State’s reduction in funding? For sure.


Do I think we need to fund the food program, especially for those who are in need? Absolutely.


Do I I think we need to make safety and structural investments in our schools?  Unequivocally.


Do I think we can and must do better academically? Resolutely.


Do I think each of us, the adults responsible for these young men and women, will be rewarded in the many years ahead for our attention to their future? No question.


It is the right thing for us to do, for them, for us and most importantly for our little town – Rome a great place to grow up and live!


In any event I hope you can come to the budget workshops. We need to hear your voice. There are always those who wish to cut a dollar here and 50 cents there. There are a very few who can see the bigger picture and longer term impact for our town. And they almost never speak up! Regardless of your perspective, your insight and voice is much needed.


See you there!


Yours in helping RSU 18 set the standard of excellence for public school education in Maine


Your School Board Director


Dr. Andrew Cook


Table: Tuition Paid By Rome Residents

Estimated Non-Resident % Contribution to Total Taxes
 Resident Effective Tuition
per Student


1. I am sure that you saw that the girl's basketball team won an impressive Single A statewide basketball championship on Saturday, March 4, And the boy's basketball team put up one heck of a fight against Greely, but regrettably lost. Still they are ranked second in the state in Single A ball! Well done! Selectman LaBelle was there, as were many from our town to cheer our teams on!

2. The District got a $26,665.00 rebate check from Efficiency Maine for completing its energy efficiency projects.

3. The acting Commissioner of Education, Robert Hasson, approved $254,549 in Revolving Renovation Fund monies for RSU 18 to address needed health and safety issues at Belgrade Central School, China Primary School and China Middle School. The district only has to repay 56% of these loans, the balance is forgiven by the State, so we essentially get the work at a 44% discount. This is a good deal for needed work and lessens the tax burden on us all!

4. The really good news is it appears that all five towns are starting to draw together as a team to help the schools develop enduring solutions to the issues (below) that will place academic excellence for the students first and foremost.  This team work is evidenced by the recent unanimous decision by the School Board to revisit the Cost-Sharing Committee's work. This is a huge sign of team work to create enduring solutions for our students! The China team proposed a resolution for the Cost-Sharing Committee. It is wonderful and a real sign of an effort by the five towns trying to work together for a common cause. I support the China proposal.


There are several significant issues facing the district:

> A potential reduction of $744,000 in State support for the district.
> The ever increasing (and currently substantial) mandated expense for special education students. Our student count in this category has increased from 440 to 480+ (out of roughly 3,000 total students)
> The increasingly urgent need for facilities safety and basic infrastructure upgrades
> The increased cost to the district from absorbing (from the State) an ever increasing portion of teacher retirement benefits
> The impact of declining enrollment and potential need for school consolidation
> Most importantly, the quality of education and the achievement of academic excellence for our students
Even if the 2017-2018 budget does not increase at all versus the current budget, the impact of the reduced State funding will be roughly a 3.75% increase in the tax need from the towns.


School budget season is upon us. It all comes together when we talk about hard dollars. We have roughly 120 Rome students under our collective stewardship. I know we all want to do as much as we can afford to help them get the very best start in life that we can all provide. This budget will be a real test of our resolve to do our very best for these young men and women.
In addition to his seat on the school board, Dr. Cook serves on several committees, subcommittees, and ad hoc committees. These committees include, but are not limited to:
Educational Programming Committee
Facilities Committee
Budget, Finance, & Stewardship Committee

Rome Student Enrollment in RSU 18