June 25, 2018
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Boards oppose school consolidation

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — If the referendum question is approved by voters on Nov. 4, SAD 1, SAD 32 and the Nashville Plantation school department would merge into a new regional school unit.

The school board members in each district, however, are hoping that won’t happen. Each board has passed a resolution urging voters to oppose the school reorganization referendum question that will be on the ballot next week.

The reorganization plan and the referendum are in response to the law passed in June 2007 requiring that the state’s 298 school districts be reorganized into 88 regional school units governed by regional school boards.

“From the very beginning, we didn’t agree with the [school consolidation] law, and our views have not changed since then,” Gehrig Johnson, the superintendent for SAD 1 and SAD 32, said Monday. “We can’t see anything in this that benefits us. We can’t see a lot of administrative savings. We can’t see where it benefits us at all.”

SAD 1 includes Presque Isle, Castle Hill, Chapman, Mapleton and Westfield. Nashville Plantation also is included in the district’s reorganization plan, as are the five communities that make up SAD 32 — Ashland, Garfield Plantation, Masardis, Oxbow Plantation and Portage Lake.

“From SAD 1’s point of view, it is also a matter of pride,” Johnson said. “In this district, we do well academically, athletically, and our students do great things in this community. Why reinvent the wheel?”

As far as SAD 32 is concerned, Johnson added, board members felt that a huge issue for them was the loss of local control they believe they will experience if the referendum question is passed.

In February, voters in SAD 32 voted to move forward with the building of a new school. It will cost nearly $22 million, of which more than $20 million will be paid by the state.

“It is a matter of local control for SAD 32,” Johnson said. “If the question passes, we’ll have a seven-member school committee.”

On that board, four of the members will be from Presque Isle, two will represent other communities that make up SAD 1, and just one member will represent SAD 32.

“Representation is based on population, and SAD 32 just doesn’t have the population,” said Johnson. “Presque Isle would have 54 percent voting representation because of its population.”

That is a concern to residents in SAD 32, he said.

“SAD 32 has a brand-new school coming,” he said. “They would like to have a 100 percent say over that building. With one member on the board, how much say will they get?”

Johnson noted that SAD 1 and SAD 32 agreed to combine administrations several years ago. Johnson runs both districts and they share many services. Johnson also is the superintendent of the Bridgewater School Department.

“We’ve been doing this for years, even before they asked us to,” he said. “We’ve already begun sharing and reducing.”

David Connerty-Marin, communications director for the state Department of Education, said it was “unfortunate” that the school districts were urging residents to vote against the plan.

“At this time, we are looking — at best — at flat funding for schools next year,” he said. “It is imperative that we all work together to find cuts and improve this situation.”

He added that the department recognized that SAD 1 and SAD 32 already had done a lot of resource sharing, as had other districts across the state.

“Various districts already have done varying levels of additional efficiencies,” he said Monday. “Clearly, we would accrue even more efficiencies if these districts came together. There are a variety of additional efficiencies that could be found.”

Johnson said Monday that officials in both SAD 1 and SAD 32 had thought about what they would do if voters agreed to turn down the referendum question.

Sheila Lyons, chairwoman of the SAD 32 board, could not be reached for comment Monday, but Johnson said the district understood the repercussions that would come along with not complying with the consolidation law.

“I think that SAD 32 understands there is a financial penalty involved, and I think they are ready to take it,” he said.

He added that if the referendum question were turned down, SAD 1 would be submitting an alternative plan that would involve standing alone and remaining SAD 1.

Connerty-Marin said there was no guarantee that any alternative plan would be approved. He added that Education Commissioner Susan Gendron had indicated she would support a change in the law that would give schools a reprieve from the financial penalty for a time so that they could submit new plans.

“But that is not law yet,” he cautioned.

Johnson said he has heard a lot of opposition to the plan from residents in both districts.

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” he said Monday.

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