SAD 53 seeks law to escape penalties

Posted Sept. 23, 2008, at 9:13 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — SAD 53, faced with $175,000 in lost revenue next year because of a failed school consolidation vote by a proposed partner, is looking to new legislation to bail it out.

SAD 53 did everything right in the consolidation process, according to state and local officials, and voters in the district passed a consolidation plan with SAD 59 (Madison) on June 10.

Voters in SAD 59, however, narrowly defeated the consolidation plan, putting SAD 53 in the position of being penalized.

“It seems to me that this is the correct time to reconvene the Regional Planning Committee,” Superintendent Michael Gallagher said this week. “This type of legislation will also be applicable to other school administrative units who will find themselves in similar situations throughout the state.”

Gallagher said the legislation could forestall penalties as long as a district was pursuing the process and would allow districts with failed votes more time to seek out partners.

Many districts will be voting on consolidation plans during the November referendum, and although SAD 53 stands alone in its penalization, Gallagher expects others to be in the same predicament after Nov. 4.

Gallagher said he initially objected to the penalty since SAD 53’s voters approved the consolidation and were continuing to work toward a solution.

But by June 30, Department of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron notified Gallagher that although she felt SAD 53 should not be penalized, the law was clear and the penalty would stand. Gendron also rejected a formal appeal by SAD 53.

“She was unable to change the decision, and SAD 53 would continue to suffer penalties if it did not consolidate and have a successful consolidation-reorganization by Jan. 30, 2009,” Gallagher said.

In August, Gendron wrote to Gallagher: “I am sympathetic to SAD 53’s situation. The citizens worked in good faith and approved the proposed merger. However, the work is not over. If, after continued efforts, SAD 53 is without a partner, I will report that to the Legislature in January as part of my report …” She also urged SAD 53 to continue to try to reorganize.

She suggested SAD 38, which was not interested in merging; SAD 48, which refused to include SAD 53 in its merger plan; SAD 59, which voted down the merger; and SADs 74 and 13, which are in the western and northern areas of Somerset County.

The district’s attorney, Bruce Smith, then wrote to Gendron in September, stating that SAD 53 should not be penalized after having voted yes for the plan. He stated that the district complied fully with the law by meeting all requirements and by achieving a positive vote from the public. He stated that all language in the reorganization law refers to any district that fails to approve a plan.

Meanwhile, school board members decided to pursue legislation that could protect them, and Gendron agreed to work toward that end.

Gallagher said state Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, has agreed to sponsor the legislation. A draft has been created changing many of the mandate dates for reorganization from Nov. 4, 2008 to Jan. 3, 2009. For those districts, such as SAD 53, that approve a plan but the plan is defeated in a proposed partner district, the deadline would be moved to July 1, 2010.

Most important, the draft legislation removes any penalty or lost revenues for any school administrative unit that has a plan even though it failed during a public vote. It stresses that any school district with a failed plan must be “actively engaged in establishing subsequent reorganization plans.”

The SAD 53 Regional Planning Committee meeting has been set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 7, at Warsaw Middle School.

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