Down East residents reject school plan

Posted Nov. 18, 2008, at 9:59 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6 a.m.

JONESPORT, Maine — By an overwhelming majority Tuesday, residents of this southwestern Washington County school district rejected plans to join a regional school organization with SAD 37.

The final tally of the referendum, held noon-6 p.m., was 256-24. As a result, the Regional Planning Committee will have to find another solution to meet Maine Department of Education guidelines.

Under a statewide mandate to cut education funding by consolidating school administrations, voters in the six towns of SAD 37 — Addison, Columbia, Columbia Falls, Harrington, Cherryfield and Milbridge — on Nov. 4 approved the plan to merge by an overall total of 1,503 to 1,293. Some of the communities overwhelmingly endorsed the plan, while others accepted it by a razor-thin margin, and Cherryfield turned it down. The small towns of Beddington and Deblois, included in the regionalization proposal, split on the idea, with Beddington voting against it.

Because the DOE’s directive calls for a regional school unit to have a minimum of 1,000 students, SAD 37, with around 750 youngsters, needed the additional 250 from the Jonesport-Beals school district to form an RSU. Now the 27-member Regional Planning Committee will consider other options such as an Alternative Organizational Structure like the one chosen by Machias earlier this year.

Jonesport resident Harry Fish, who teaches at SAD 37’s Narraguagus High School and served on the committee, said after an informational meeting on the plan last month that the public sentiment seemed to be against a regional school.

“We’re fixing something that isn’t broken,” he said in an interview, adding that he felt consolidation would in fact increase education costs. Beals might see a decrease, but Jonesport would face an increase of as much as $145,000.

However, according to SAD 37 Superintendent David Beal, if the towns fail to devise some reorganization plan by mid-2009, they may be subject to stiff monetary penalties by the state in addition to the cut-off of DOE funding.

David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the DOE, said in a phone interview after the vote that Commissioner Susan Gendron has indicated support for a one-year reprieve of penalties for those towns that have voted to support regionalization, though it would require legislative action to do so.

Connerty-Marin noted that it is unlikely any towns that have not formed a consolidation plan by now will have time to do so by Jan. 31, the mandated date for a regionalization plan to be implemented by July 1.

Fears of increased expenditures and higher taxes were not the only issue on the minds of voters, though. Fish and school board member Sylvina Lyons of Beals, who was also on the committee, noted that loss of local control over educational policy also figured into concerns, because votes on a regional school board would be weighted according to the number of students from each town. Under an AOS there would be a regional board, but each town would retain authority over its local schools.

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