Deadline looms for plans to consolidate

Posted Jan. 12, 2009, at 8:21 p.m.

The deadline for towns to vote on plans that would consolidate school administrations in their areas is quickly approaching, and a fair number of communities are pushing that deadline to the limit.

Beginning with balloting today, 22 reorganization plans for a total of 138 school units will go before local voters before the deadline at the end of this month, the bulk of them voting on Jan. 27, just three days before the extended deadline set by the Legislature. The original consolidation law required that communities hold a referendum vote on a plan by Nov. 4, 2008.

Voters in eastern Washington County towns, including Calais, Vanceboro and Eastport, and in the towns of Waterville, Vassalboro and Winslow are voting today on reorganization plans for their regions. On Jan. 20, towns in SAD 42 (Mars Hill area), SAD 45 (Washburn area), Easton and Bridgewater will vote on a plan, and on Jan. 24, Hermon and towns in SAD 23 will decide the fate of their plan.

The remaining 18 plans will go to voters on Jan. 27.

The plans and referendums are 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 with the goal of streamlining operations and reducing costs.

So far, a total of 16 plans, consolidating 65 school districts, have been approved by Education Commissioner Susan Gendron and adopted by the voters in those districts.

Another 38 plans were approved by the commissioner but did not require voter approval, either because they were large enough to meet the enrollment requirement of 2,500 students or because they were able to make a case for demographic or geographic reasons to be allowed to stand on their own, according to Maine Depart-ment of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. Those units still were required to reorganize district functions to show a savings in operations without adversely affecting instructional programming, he said.

Also, eight island school districts and three Maine Indian education districts were exempt from the reorganization law, but still had to develop plans to show operational savings.

To date, Connerty-Marin said, 283 of the state’s 290 existing school districts have submitted plans for reorganization. Several districts — Kittery, Carrabassett Valley, Lakeview Plantation, West Forks and Kingsbury Plantation — chose not to submit plans or withdrew from proposed reorganized units.

Those late to bring proposals to the voters are not necessarily those that have been opposed to the consolidation law, according to Connerty-Marin, who acknowledged that developing reorganization plans is a complicated and time-consuming process.

“Some regions who were quickest to embrace the opportunities for change were the ones who voted in June and November,” Connerty-Marin said Monday. “Others have taken more time and done good work looking to come up with the best solution that worked for their students. A few of them, however, have been some of the more reluctant communities.”

Many regional planning committees suspended their planning efforts last year when it became clear that state legislators intended to make significant changes to the school consolidation law. Some of those opted to focus their efforts on an alternative organizational structure allowed by amendments to the law approved during the legislative session.

By holding the referendum vote on a proposed reorganization plan, a community will comply with the consolidation law, even if the town or school district rejects the proposal. In cases where the voters reject the plan, Connerty-Marin said, the town will face the penalty for not reorganizing.

The law allows the department to reduce state subsidy to school units that have not reorganized. Those school districts also will face lower rankings for school construction projects.

Contrary to some reports, Connerty-Marin said, when a reorganization plan has been rejected, there is no requirement that school districts develop another plan to present to voters, although he noted that those districts certainly have the opportunity come up with another plan.

In some areas, that process already has begun. For example, SAD 10 and SAD 27 rejected a plan to join with Madawaska and with SAD 33, and have since developed a new plan to reorganize on their own. Education Commissioner Susan Gendron has approved the plan and voters will decide its fate on Jan. 27.

The commissioner also has approved a plan for SAD 1 in the Presque Isle area and one for several SAD units around Houlton, although Gendron has not approved a notice of intent to file for SAD 29, which includes Houlton itself.

Those plans still must be approved by voters, and Connerty-Marin stressed that communities in those districts still face the penalties under the law, even though they are working on a new plan.

“If units are working on a plan and are able to put together a plan before the department calculates the subsidies, it is possible that they could avoid the penalties,” he said. “But they’re working with a very short window at that point.”

The new school units must be up and running by the start of the new fiscal year, July 1. That requires that they elect new regional school committees, hire superintendents and develop a school budget for the new district, along with a range of other organizational details, he said.

The commissioner has said she will support proposed legislation to delay for one year the penalty for those communities that voted in favor of the proposed plans, even though they were rejected by other towns.

SAD 53 in the Pittsfield area falls in this category, as SAD 53 towns approved a plan with SAD 59 (Madison area), but SAD 59 communities rejected the plan and opted to join with SAD 74 (Anson area), SAD 13 (Bingham area) and others.

In western Washington County, SAD 37 (Harrington area) and Deblois face the same problem, as their partner communities in the Moosabec CSD and Beddington rejected their plan. In the St. John Valley, Madawaska was the only community to approve the original plan involving themselves and SADs 10, 24, 27 and 33.

The question of how to deal with districts that have rejected plans still remains open.

“The reality is that we have some communities that have voted for their plans, and some that are going to vote ‘no,’” Connerty-Marin said. “We will have to see what we can do for those communities to help them find partners and savings.”

There may be some areas that will not vote to reorganize, such as the Machias area, where all 12 school districts in the proposed regional unit voted to reject the plan.

Other areas where there are existing school unions will be faced with the dissolution of those unions as of July 1. In those cases, Connerty-Marin said, the towns may have to develop their own interlocal agreements to allow them to provide such functions as hiring a superintendent and other central office functions.

Information on the school reorganization law and plans is available from the Department of Education at www.maine.gov/education/reorg.

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