Unpartnered schools look to avoid fines

Posted Jan. 07, 2009, at 8:26 p.m.

MADISON, Maine — Legislation is being proposed to give school administrative districts such as SAD 53 in Pittsfield that were unable to find a merger partner by November an additional year to make plans without financial penalties.

The Pittsfield school district was left in the lurch in June when residents of SAD 59 in the Madison area narrowly rejected consolidation with SAD 53. Residents of SAD 59 will vote on an alternative proposal to merge with two different school districts Jan. 27.

David Connerty-Marin of the Maine Department of Education said Wednesday that after several referendum votes in November, a number of districts found themselves in the same position as SAD 53, with no consolidation partner and facing hefty revenue penalties.

Connerty-Marin said these include SAD 10 (Allagash), SAD 24 (Van Buren), SAD 27 (Fort Kent), SAD 33 (Frenchville) and the towns of Grand Isle and Madawaska; SAD 9, Coplin Plantation and Highland Plantation in Somerset County; SAD 37 (Harrington), Deblois, Bennington and Moosabec Consolidated School Unit.

Two districts, SAD 51 (Cumberland) and Falmouth have already submitted alternative plans to stand alone due to adequate student numbers. SADs 10 and 27 in Aroostook County are voting on a possible consolidation Jan. 27.

Superintendent Michael Gallagher, who leads both SAD 53 and SAD 59, said SAD 59 will vote Jan. 27 to merge with SAD 74 (Carrabassett), SAD 13 (Bingham), the town of Caratunk, and the plantations of Pleasant Ridge, The Forks and Dennistown.

Gallagher said Wednesday that he really doesn’t have a feel for how the vote will go.

“There are a number of people who believe that because the districts are contiguous, a consolidation makes an awful lot of sense. But there is still some division about any kind of consolidation,” he said.

Meanwhile, SAD 53 has been left in a holding pattern, unable to find a partner and facing $175,000 in lost revenue because of the failed consolidation with SAD 59.

Both state and local officials agree that SAD 53 did everything right in the consolidation process and voters in SAD 53 approved the merger in June. Early in the process, SAD 53 was rejected by SADs 49, 54, 3 and 48, leaving it geographically stranded. Because school officials believed that SADs 53 and 59 were very alike philosophically and because both wanted to retain their own high schools, the merger was sought.

When SAD 59 defeated the plan, SAD 53 was threatened with the loss of state revenue. Gallagher said he initially objected to the penalty since SAD 53’s voters approved the consolidation and were continuing to work toward a solution. But, although she said she sympathized with SAD 53’s situation, Department of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron notified Gallagher that the law was clear and the penalty would stand. Gendron also rejected a formal appeal by SAD 53.

Meanwhile, school board members decided to pursue legislation that could protect the district, and Gendron agreed to work with them toward that end.

Gallagher said that state Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, has agreed to sponsor the legislation and has submitted a draft. The draft would change many of the mandated dates for reorganization. For those districts, such as SAD 53, that approved a plan but the plan is defeated in a proposed partner district, the deadline would be moved to July 1, 2010.

Gallagher said it was most important that the draft legislation removes any penalty or lost revenues for any school administrative unit that has a plan even though it failed during a public vote.

Gallagher said the legislation would be submitted as an emergency provision, which would mean it would become effective immediately upon passage.

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