HOULTON, Maine — SAD 29 officials are in a “waiting pattern,” Superintendent Steve Fitzpatrick said Friday, as they watch the state Department of Education for signals about what to do regarding compliance with the school consolidation law.
In November, voters in the district turned down a proposed regional school consolidation plan that called for SAD 29 in Houlton, SAD 70 in Hodgdon, SAD 14 in Danforth, Community School District 9 in Dyer Brook and the municipal units of Hersey, Moro Plantation, Orient and Bancroft to consolidate to form the Tri-County Regional School Unit.
Voters in every town in the suggested RSU rejected the proposal.
Once that happened, all the members of the RSU except SAD 29 submitted a plan for an alternative organizational structure. The alternative called for those districts and towns to partner on reorganization. And that plan was approved by the Department of Education.
SAD 29 chose to move forward alone and submitted an alternative plan asking Education Commissioner Susan Gendron for permission to do so. On Friday, it was announced that SAD 29’s plan was turned down.
An alternative structure requires communities to function as a single school system that reports a single budget to the Department of Education, receives a single subsidy check, and has a common core curriculum and procedures for standardized testing and assessment. An alternative structure files reports with the state as a single unit and must adopt consistent school policies, school calendars and a plan for achieving consistent collective bargaining agreements, according to the Education Department Web site.
Under the alternative structure proposal, communities would keep all of their schools open and have their own school boards, but they would share a central office in order to cut costs.
Fitzpatrick said Friday that he had received oral notice that SAD 29’s letter of intent to submit an alternative plan had been rejected, but he had not received a formal written notice.
“We have expressed no interest in joining the [alternative structure], but the [other districts and towns] have,” he said from his office at Houlton High School.
The reorganization plan and the referendum were in response to the law passed in June 2007 requiring that the state’s 290 school districts be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units governed by regional school boards.
Once the RSU plan was rejected by voters in the district, it opened the door for SAD 29 to submit an alternative plan before the final deadline of Jan. 30, 2009.
Fitzpatrick said SAD 29 has 1,315 students, which is over the minimum of 1,200 students needed under the law to form a regional school unit.
The law, however, states that “existing school units should aim to form regional school units of at least 2,500 resident students,” according to David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Education Department.
“The 1,200 student number is the absolute minimum,” he said. “The commissioner did not support SAD 29’s letter of intent for an alternative plan because she is concerned about the sustainability of that district. The population in that area is going down and it is going down quickly, and an enrollment of 1,315 is pretty close to the minimum of 1,200.”
Connerty-Marin said that 10 schools had submitted an [alternative structure] plan.
Fitzpatrick said he was “not completely sure” that the alternative structure put forth by the other towns and districts would work.
“I think we are going to be working on this for a while,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said the district is basically watching and waiting. He said that taxpayers who live in communities that would be part of the alternative structure likely would vote next month on whether to approve the plan. If they approved the structure, that would leave SAD 29 as the sole district in southern Aroostook without a partner.
“Right now, we’re in a waiting pattern,” Fitzpatrick said Friday. “It could be five or six weeks before we know our next step.”
In Danforth, SAD 14 Superintendent William Dobbins said the alternative structure would have a cost benefit because there would be only one central office. He said he had sent the proposal to the regional planning committee for review in time for a Dec. 15 meeting.
“They have not formalized the plan, but they are looking at it,” he said of the planning committee. “We will sit down at the upcoming meeting and review it and decide what to do next.”
He added that he felt the alternative structure would help the partnering schools maintain local control.
“After the reorganization plan was turned down by the voters, it sent a pretty clear message that the public wants control of local schools,” he said. “The [alternative structure] will do that.”
Voters in the four school districts in the St. John Valley also rejected their reorganization plan on Election Day. The plan called for all four districts to form one RSU. Gendron has approved a plan for two of those school units — SAD 27 in Fort Kent and SAD 10 in Allagash — to file a new plan for reorganization. The others are considering their next steps.