FORT KENT, Maine — Three St. John Valley school districts have opted to pay annual financial penalties rather than move forward with any consolidation plans as mandated under state law.
Two other valley districts, meanwhile, have had their plan to consolidate school administration accepted by the commissioner of education. On Monday Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron approved the Alternative Operating Structure, or AOS, combining SAD 10 and SAD 27.
In a November referendum, voters turned down a proposed Alternative Organizational Structure combining SAD 10 (Allagash), SAD 27 (Fort Kent), SAD 33 (St. Agatha), SAD 24 (Van Buren), and the Madawaska School Department into one administrative unit.
Under the law, the 298 Maine school districts have until July 1 to reorganize into 88 larger, regional units with the goal of streamlining operations and reducing costs.
While SAD 10 and SAD 27 now will operate under one superintendent for administrative purposes, the alternative structure allows each to retain its own school board.
“For us it’s going to be pretty much business as usual,” Patrick O’Neill, SAD 27 superintendent, said.
SAD 10 already transports its students to schools in SAD 27.
The proposed AOS still requires voter approval, and member towns will have their chance during a referendum on Jan. 28.
“We were looking at a heavy [financial] penalty for not complying,” O’Neill said. “For us it would have been disastrous.”
According to the Maine school consolidation Web site, SAD 27 could have been hit with a $169,000 penalty, and SAD 10 $5,800.
For school officials in SAD 33, SAD 24 and Madawaska, the fines are worth less than what they see as the overall cost of consolidation.
“Our concern with the whole process was the financial penalties are less severe than the loss of local control,” Sandra San Antonio, SAD 33 school board chair, said. “The Department of Education would not give us any information on how funding would be distributed among the member districts.”
For now, San Antonio said, her district is taking a wait-and-see attitude in hopes the Legislature will look again at the consolidation mandates.
In the meantime, it could mean a $55,000 penalty to the district.
In SAD 24, Superintendent Clayton Belanger said his board also is in a holding pattern. He said the costs of consolidation were more than the $65,000 penalty his district faces.
“What was scary for us was the AOS treats you like a school unit when you redistribute funds, and that’s not right,” Belanger said. “The department of education kept giving us varying numbers on how that would work out for us.”
For example, Belanger said, at one point the department’s figures showed SAD 24 would gain close to $100,000 as a member of the AOS. Soon after, that changed to the district losing $70,000 to $80,000.
“The AOS does not work for us,” Belanger said.
Madawaska, one of only three individual towns in the St. John Valley to approve the AOS plan in November, remains open to partnering with a neighboring district.
“I was very shocked the [overall] vote went the way it did,” Lyford Beverage, Madawaska superintendent, said. “The fact is the law is not going away and it requires consolidation.”
Beverage said he has approached his counterparts in SAD 33 and SAD 24 in an effort to open consolidation talks, but said both boards declined, citing a desire to first see what, if any, action the Legislature might take.
As far as he is concerned, Beverage said, relying on some form of special legislation could very well be the answer for school districts such as Madawaska.
“There could be some sort of legislation creating something in lieu of the AOS or RSU [Regional School Unit],” Beverage said. “Why can’t we talk about ways we can cooperate and share by creating our own model?”
The original legislation, Beverage said, was flawed in numerous ways.
“Most people saw it as punitive,” he said. “Perhaps if some incentives were worked into it — I don’t know too many people who don’t want to save money.”
Towns along a border, such as the one the St. John Valley shares with New Brunswick, faced additional challenges in complying with the legislation, Beverage said.
“When it came to looking for partners, we could not look north,” he said. “We only had half the compass to work with.”
SAD 24 is a member of the Maine Small School Coalition, and Belanger said the group is lobbying the Legislature to overturn the penalties.
However, the superintendent did say such a move is a long shot.
Instead, he is hopeful that when a new governor and commissioner of education are in place in two years, things will change.
“That’s a gamble they can take,” said David Connerty-Marin, Department of Education spokesperson. “But I don’t get the impression anyone [in the Legislature] is looking to make any changes.”
Despite school boards’ concerns, Connerty-Marin said, the consolidation plan remains the best way for Maine’s school districts to rein in costs and improve teaching.
“If schools can’t afford quality programs, the first way to save money is in noninstructional programs,” he said. “With those savings you can then preserve those quality programs.”
Such savings, Connerty-Marin said, will come through streamlining of services and programs in consolidation.
For superintendents such as Belanger, it’s still not worth it.
“We figure we can pay the penalty for a couple of years and wait them out,” Belanger said.