BAR HARBOR, Maine — After two years of planning, negotiating and occasionally resisting the state’s demands, education officials on Mount Desert Island have received state approval for plans to reorganize the governance and administrative oversight of the area’s municipal schools.
State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron sent the island’s regional planning committee a letter Monday indicating that the state Education Department has approved the reorganization of Union 98 into the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.
MDI’s plan “is consistent with the policy objectives and parameters set forth in the re-organization law, and it includes all required plan elements and adequate supporting documentation,” Gendron wrote.
The approval is conditional on clarification of two points in the plan, but education officials on MDI said they are minor and should not have a substantive effect on what the island towns had proposed.
One clarification will more clearly spell out the administrative responsibilities of the new school system’s board and those of the superintendent, while the other will give the state Education Department a role in approving any possible changes to the municipal membership of the new school system.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Union 98 Superintendent Rob Liebow said Tuesday of the clarifications. “There’s no change in what the concept is.”
MDI’s reorganization plan stems from a mandate from the state to reduce the number of school administrative entities in Maine. The measure to reduce the number of such entities from 290 to 80 was approved by the Legislature last year as part of a plan to reduce administrative costs and state subsidies for elementary and high schools in Maine.
Gail Marshall, a member of the Mount Desert School Committee and head of the island’s regional planning committee, or RPC, said Tuesday the individual school boards that oversee the schools in Union 98 — one from each town and the multitown board that oversees the high school — will have to approve the proposed clarifications before the proposed plan goes to voters in the affected towns. She said community forums on the proposed plan will be scheduled and held before each town holds a referendum on the plan during the general election Nov. 4.
The new system will be similar to the old one in that Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont will continue to be the member towns of the local high school district. The outer islands of Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro and Swan’s Island will be members of the regional school system but will tuition their students to Mount Desert Island Regional High School, as they have done with Union 98. Trenton, which will continue to be a member of Union 92 through June 30, 2009, also will be a member of the new regional school system but will tuition its students to MDI High.
The new structure preserves the level of local control that local officials wanted to keep from the current Union 98 system, according to Marshall. The new structure will not be a union, she said, but each individual town will continue to oversee the administration of its local elementary school.
“I still think the process has been cumbersome with a capital C to end up close to where we were,” Marshall said. “I feel good, very good, about what we ended up with.”
MDI lobbied Gendron hard, with the help of some of its legislators and its attorney, to be recognized for some of the administrative policies it already had established with Union 98.
For example, all the schools in the union already had identical curriculums, schedules and collective bargaining agreements with their teachers and support staff, she said, because the island’s school boards and administrators wanted to simplify the union’s administration as much as possible.
MDI’s first reorganization plan was rejected by the state last December, but after further negotiations MDI officials convinced the state to create an alternative organizational structure option for existing school entities that did not want to consolidate with neighboring districts but were already putting into place the type of administrative-streamlining efforts the state was looking for.
Marshall said that despite MDI’s convoluted negotiations with state officials, it will be relatively easy for MDI to qualify as an alternative organizational structure because the option in many ways is modeled on what MDI was already doing. For other school administrative entities, she said, it may not be so easy.
Trenton, which is not now a member of Union 98, would have seven years to make sure its collective bargaining agreement with its elementary school staff ends up being the same as those in place at other MDI-area schools, she said. In some new districts, she said, there likely will be several different collective bargaining agreements that will have to be adapted into one.
“That was a huge selling point [with state officials] when it got down to the nitty gritty,” Marshall said of the identical collective bargaining agreements already on MDI. “That will be a huge challenge to other school systems.”
If a majority of voters in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont each approve the plan on Nov. 4, a committee of citizens that oversees the new system’s administration will have to be formed quickly to begin work on drafting a budget for the new entity for the 2009-10 fiscal year, Marshall said. At the same time, the existing Union 98 board will continue its work through June 30, 2009, to administer the union’s 2008-09 budget.
Marshall said the issue of the MDI High funding formula, which determines how much money each town pays for each student it sends to the school, will have to be addressed separately from the state consolidation law.
Officials in Mount Desert, which spends about $18,000 for each student it sends to the school, long have objected to the fact that they pay about twice as much as each of the other towns on MDI.
The special act of the Legislature that created the current funding formula for the high school ended up not being affected by the reorganization process, according to Marshall.
“That’s a separate legislative deal,” she said. “It’s outside of [the RPC’s] jurisdiction.”
The RPC is expected to meet again at the local high school at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3, to discuss the plan and the requested clarifications.