ELLSWORTH, Maine — Residents of Hancock County’s largest municipality and 10 nearby towns are expected to go to the polls next week to determine whether they should form a new regional school unit that will have 2,700 pupils.
The reorganization plan will go up for vote on Dec. 9 in Ellsworth, in all existing Union 96 towns, and in Union 92 towns that would be part of the new RSU — Eastbrook, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Otis and Waltham.
Three area school superintendents said Monday that attendance was light, for the most part, at a series of informational meetings held last month in towns that would be affected directly by the plan. They said they hope voters will be sufficiently informed about the proposal and will turn out in heavy numbers when the vote is held next week.
“This is one of the more significant decisions the public will be voting on when it comes to education,” Union 96 Superintendent Bill Webster said Monday.
Webster met Monday morning in Ellsworth with outgoing interim Ellsworth Schools Superintendent Wayne Enman, Franklin Superintendent Henry Ashmore, and local reporters to discuss the proposed plan.
The state mandate to reduce school administration costs is the reason for the proposal, but the superintendents said it also would have other benefits. Many smaller schools have part-time positions, they said, and it can be tough to attract experienced, capable people to such posts.
A larger school unit will give administrators the chance to combine part-time assignments into full-time jobs, the superintendents said. One school might need only a part-time principal or arts teacher, but if one such position can be combined with similar part-time positions at other area schools to create one or more full-time jobs, the schools and their students will benefit. It will be easier to attract quality candidates, to keep those jobs filled and to keep smaller schools open, they said.
The superintendents said that in order to maintain a level of local control, each town would have an advisory committee that consults with the new RSU committee. Each advisory committee will have one local person who is an RSU panel member and an administrator from a nearby school. All decisions, however, ultimately will be approved by the RSU committee, which will have 15 seats. Three of those seats would be filled by Ellsworth residents, while each other town would get one seat, the voting power or weight of which will depend on the population of the municipality the seat represents.
“The advisory committees will be very helpful to the RSU board in bringing their attention to issues,” Webster said.
The superintendents said that if any municipality votes against the plan and opts not to join the new RSU, it could end up receiving less money from the state than it would otherwise. For example, Ellsworth could be penalized nearly $243,000, while Gouldsboro could lose out on $126,000 and Lamoine could end up with $54,000 less, according to information provided by the superintendents.
Many towns in Hancock County, though not all, are getting less money from the state as it is, regardless of how they vote on their school reorganization proposals. Ellsworth is expected to get $550,000 less in school funds from the state this year while Lamoine is getting $209,000 less, and Peninsula CSD, which consists of Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor, is getting $56,000 less, according to figures posted on the official Web site of the Maine Department of Education.
To add to the financial discomfort, Ashmore said, any town that doesn’t join the RSU will have to continue to pay for its own superintendent and administrative staff and systems — and it may have to do so with little or no help from surrounding towns.
“All those things — boy, do they add up fast,” Ashmore said. “The law says you have to have a superintendent.”
Enman said change is coming to municipal schools regardless of whether people want it to or whether they vote in favor of the reorganization plan.
“You’re going to get less dollars to run your schools,” Enman said. “You have to get more efficient one way or another.”
No part of the plan calls for or even recommends closing any public school in any of the affected towns, the superintendents said. In addition, Hancock County Technical Center in Ellsworth would be part of the new RSU, they said.
Enman said he supports the plan, as did Ashmore. Each of them said that, given the economic realities that are coming to bear, adopting the proposal is in the best interests of students.
Webster stopped short of officially endorsing the plan, but he did say students might end up paying the price in any town that does not end up joining the proposed RSU. He said he could sympathize with objections people might have to the way the state forced the issue, but that it is the end result that matters.
“I’m very concerned about the impact on programs,” Webster said about the possible result of a rejection of the RSU proposal.
Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin was not available Tuesday evening for comment on the plan.
Polls in each town will be open on Tuesday, Dec. 9. Towns participating in the vote are Eastbrook, Ellsworth, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Otis, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor.