Spanish Teacher Peter Webster uses songs to teach his class at Bruce Whittier Middle School in Poland. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Public

Ten years ago, Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a law changing the structure of education across Maine, forcing districts to consolidate with schools in nearby towns as a way of saving money. But a decade later, the consolidation experiment has led to more conflict than success in many districts.

Pete Webster’s Spanish class at Whittier Middle School in Poland begins quietly enough. Webster introduces a few vocab words to his students, and they repeat them back. But about five minutes in, Webster picks up a guitar and, soon, the classroom becomes a whirlwind of sound.

As kids dance and sing along, Webster incorporates vocabulary words and repeats them, over and over again. But five years ago, there was no singing here in this classroom. In fact, there was no Spanish at all.

The recession of 2008 brought drastic cuts to many of the district’s programs. At the same time, the state’s 2007 school consolidation law was transforming the district — and the state. It winnowed Maine’s 290 districts down to about 160.

In this area, it brought together three towns — Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot — into Regional School Unit 16. Superintendent Tina Meserve says it was hard at first, prompting a lot of initial cuts. But she says the towns gradually formed a united vision for education and assessed the needs of each community.

“So when we looked at the services, we looked at where is there inequity in our district? We had a guidance counselor in Poland but none in Minot, Mechanic Falls so we added them there. So there would be equitable services for kids who were struggling,” she says.

Over time, programs including music and middle school Spanish were added, and Meserve says the process even saved money. The district’s budget this year is about $21 million — about $1 million less than 10 years ago.

In RSU 2 in Hallowell, Superintendent Bill Zima tells a similar story. He says the district’s new school board and towns came together around an idea of “personalized learning,” with seminar-style classes and student-paced instruction.

“It’s, let’s everybody do this together. It gave them points to think around, which helped bring them together,” he says.

But Gordon Donaldson, University of Maine professor emeritus of education, says the success stories at RSU 2 and RSU 16 are relatively rare.

“In Maine, it’s always going to come down to the local unit and the local community,” he says. “And I think that’s the way it should be.”

Donaldson says while some of these larger districts have stayed together and thrived, dozens of others have fallen apart as communities have sought to regain local control of their schools.

According to the state Department of Education, 33 towns have withdrawn from their school districts since 2012. More than 40 others are either considering withdrawal, or have tried and failed.

Donaldson says part of the reason that consolidation didn’t work in so many districts is that few actually saved any money. And some communities feared the closure of a local school.

“When people start talking about closing schools, people panic,” says Deborah Alden, the superintendent of RSU 10 in Rumford.

Just last year, four towns in Alden’s district voted to withdraw, partly over school closure fears. Other towns, such as Andover and Athens, have withdrawn from other districts over similar worries.

Alden says she understands it — local schools, she says, are often the central hubs of many small communities.

“No matter what, it’ll be costly to keep every school open. And one of the things is they don’t want the budget to keep going up, you have to close a school oftentimes. And I think people panic when they hear that,” she says.

Ten years later, Maine is now taking a different tack, called “regionalization.” Over the next two years, the state will offer about $10 million in grants for districts to share services like special education and transportation.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, says many officials are encouraged by the strategy — particularly because it’s no longer mandatory.

“Let’s do it voluntarily. Let’s come together where it does make sense,” he says.

It’s still too early to tell how effective the new model will be, but schools are getting on board. Districts from Fryeburg up to Madawaska have received grants that they hope will save money in the future, without fearing the loss of a beloved local school.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.