The Department of Education has released numerous news articles recently on the progress of school reorganization throughout the state indicating that a majority of school systems are complying with the School Reorganization Law.
What they fail to report is the varying levels of significant reorganization and varying levels of significant change that school systems with approved plans will have to go through upon implementation.
Of the 48 approved reorganization plans, 34 are Alternative Plans. School systems with an Alternative Plan will remain independent and do not require any reorganization and consolidation of services with other school systems. The Alternative Plan model only requires that these school systems indicate how they will restructure internally to save money in the areas of system administration, special education, transportation and facilities and maintenance during the first year of implementation.
There is nothing in the law that requires these reductions to be maintained. If the school committee determines at a later date that a reduction made as part of the plan was detrimental to the operation, they can reverse their decision without any implications on their status as an approved system.
Rural school systems have been in this restructuring and streamlining mode of operation for the past 15 years. They have had to face internal reorganization decisions annually without a state-mandated Alternative Plan.
The Department has also reported that 12 of the 18 reorganization plans were approved by voters Nov. 4. What they failed to report was that of these 12 plans, the Mount Desert Island region Alternative Organizational Structure Plan presented very little change for the school systems involved. To quote Union 98 Superintendent Rob Liebow in an Oct. 13 press release in the Bar Harbor Times, “The AOS is a code word for Union 98. It’s the same thing as Union 98, but with a different Halloween costume.”
Of the other 13 plans approved under the Regional School Unit model, eight of them are already sharing services among the configuration partners, including sharing a single high school. Compared to the plans that were rejected, the Houlton area plan includes the operation of five high schools and the St. John Valley plan includes the operation of four high schools.
The level of reorganization and significant change is quite different. Also, of these 13 approved plans, four plans include school systems that currently operate within the school union-Community School District model of system administration. Again, the level of significant change is quite different.
From an area perspective, eight plans include school systems within 225 square miles or less of each other. This type of reorganization is comparable to the reorganization rural Maine underwent with the Sinclair Act in 1957 and the formation of School Administrative Districts. For comparison purposes, SAD 27 in the St. John Valley covers 277 square miles. Four of the plans rejected include school systems within areas ranging from 489 square miles to 982 square miles. Compare this to the plan that reorganized the Dayton-Old Orchard Beach-Saco area, which covers 65 square miles and you can better understand why some of the plans have been rejected.
If you account for the 34 alternative plans and the nine reorganization plans approved that will go through a limited level of significant reorganization and change upon implementation of the plan, we are actually looking at a total of only three reorganization plans that include significant reorganization and change in how they will operate upon implementation. I think it is time for the Department of Education, legislators and the governor to remove their rosy colored glasses and return to reality with regards to school reorganization in the state of Maine.
No one disputes the fact that change is needed for long-term sustainability, but the prescribed plan was ill-conceived and unfairly thrust upon communities, especially rural Maine, and changes must be made to the law that will provide sufficient time to design acceptable models of school reorganization without the threat of penalty for not achieving such difficult goals within the ideal timeframe prescribed by current law.
To think that school systems that have not been able to successfully craft an acceptable reorganization plan will be financially penalized and these funds will be redistributed to complying school systems, including those who have satisfied the law with minimal impact, is incomprehensible and unacceptable.
Dan Bechard is co-chairperson of the St. John Valley Regional Planning Committee. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.