LINCOLN, Maine — The state Department of Education has approved a proposal to consolidate the school administration of more than 20 northern Penobscot County towns into one regional school unit serving 2,031 students.
Now, consolidation proponents said Friday, comes the hardest part: getting voters to agree to it.
The RSU committee, formed six months ago to assemble the consolidation proposal, agreed Thursday to hold a referendum on the consolidation plan on Jan. 27, said SAD 67 Superintendent Michael Marcinkus, an adviser to the committee.
The vote will involve the towns of SADs 30, 31 and 67, Union 110 and several communities around them, including Woodville, Lowell and Seboeis Plantation. The Department of Education and Commissioner Susan Gendron approved the regionalization plan about a week and a half ago, Marcinkus said.
Committee members plan to acquaint voters with the plan at meetings held at Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln on Jan. 12, Mount Jefferson Junior High School in Lee on Jan. 20, and Penobscot Valley High School in Howland on Jan. 19, Marcinkus said. The meetings will run from 7 to 10 p.m. Residents are invited to attend.
“It’s very important,” committee member Jackie Thurlow said Friday of the review meeting process. “We need to do a good job explaining it to the public.”
Job No. 1 of the unveiling, Thurlow said, involves ensuring that residents know that all school districts will face heavy penalties under the state law mandating the consolidation if the plan fails to pass by summer. Lincoln, for example, would face a reduction of about $180,000 or more in education subsidy, she said.
“We are just being forced into it,” Thurlow said of consolidation. “I want everybody to work toward a good resolution of this so we don’t make it worse.”
Under the proposal, the as-yet-unnamed Regional School Unit would be governed by a 14-member school board representing three wards. Five apiece would represent Lincoln and the towns of SAD 31. Four would represent the towns of SAD 30 and others near there, including Chester and Mattawamkeag, which belong to SAD 67.
That does not include the Katahdin region towns adjacent to Woodville — East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket — that are forming an Alternative Organizational Structure. Woodville would send tuition students to the RSU and the Sunrise Peak School District.
The state required consolidation of school administrations in order to create savings that would help lower the state’s education subsidies, but the RSU committee’s proponents doubt that their plan would produce net savings.
The plan predicts $98,000 in administrative savings in the RSU’s first year, but Thurlow felt it likely that the contract parity consolidation forces, among other things, would destroy any savings. SAD 67, for example, pays its teachers less than other nearby school districts, a savings likely to be wiped out when regionalization comes.
The state’s need to cut spending and the recession further damage any likelihood of savings, Thurlow said.