The future of public education in northern Penobscot County likely will be shaped for the next decade by a series of public hearings that starts Wednesday.
The hearings will give residents a chance to discuss state-mandated efforts to combine a Rhode Island-size area of about 25 towns into two components serving about 3,200 students before a Jan. 27 vote on whether to proceed with school regionalization.
Hearings for the smaller unit, the Sunrise Peak School District, or alternative organizational structure of three Katahdin region towns, begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Medway Middle School. Hearings continue at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stearns High School of Millinocket and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the East Millinocket Town Of-fice.
Hearings on the larger unit, a regional school unit that combines SADs 30, 31 and 67 plus Union 110 and several communities around them, including Woodville, Lowell and Seboeis Plantation, begin at Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln on Jan. 12. They continue at Penobscot Valley High School in Howland on Jan. 19 and Mount Jefferson Junior High School in Lee on Jan. 20. The meetings will run from 7 to 10 p.m.
No one on the two organizational committees charged with creating the RSU and AOS has expressed much enthusiasm for the task. Many are sharply critical of the process, its supposed savings and improved efficiencies. The critics contend that the savings are illusory, as the regions’ SADs and unions already do most things re-gionalization proponents advocate, including shared bulk buying and school training.
SAD 67 Superintendent Michael Marcinkus told residents at a recent meeting at Dr. Carl Troutt School that the Katahdin and Lincoln Lakes regions might have the most difficulty creating the regionalized school districts that state lawmakers envision.
“There are so many things that work against this,” Marcinkus said.
The vast geography; the problems of combining and administering so many diverse school administrative districts; the feared loss of schools with which towns identify; and a lack of detailed guidelines from the Maine Department of Education are among obstacles cited by Marcinkus and others.
Yet neither plan calls for immediate changes to schools. Katahdin and Lincoln Lakes students and parents will see no significant differences in their schools’ operations next September if they approve the reorganization plans at the Jan. 27 referendum, committee members say.
If voters do not OK the plan, state law compels the regionalization effort to continue until something is passed, or else each town is penalized financially. Penalties range as high as $180,000 per municipality.
Under the proposed Sunrise Peak AOS, East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket residents would have committees running their schools, with each committee naming three members to an AOS board and one superintendent supervising the schools.
That’s essentially just as the schools operate now through Union 113, the three towns’ school committees and Superintendent Sara Alberts, except that Woodville would tuition its students to Lincoln-area schools.
Under the proposed Lincoln Lakes Regional School Unit, 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.
All state-approved school reorganization plans are available at maine.gov/education/reorg/plansandresponses.html.