Washington County towns debate options for school reorganization

Posted Jan. 13, 2009, at 8:54 p.m.

HARRINGTON, Maine — After nearly two hours of questions, the Regionalization Planning Committee representing 10 western Washington County towns voted Monday evening to consider another option for reorganizing their school administrations.

A proposal to consolidate school administrations was defeated when voters in Jonesport, Beals and Beddington rejected it last year. Voters in the six towns in SAD 37 and Deblois supported the plan for the Regional School Unit, which was drawn up in response to a law passed in June 2007 requiring that the state’s 290 school districts be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units.

Ray Freve, state-appointed facilitator for the process, fielded queries from committee members at Monday night’s meeting about the alternatives now available to the towns.

Freve, superintendent of Searsport schools who has assisted seven regionalization efforts throughout the state, said early in the meeting that the four choices available are: wait for possible legislation to overturn the regionalization mandate; try again for an RSU; keep the schools as they exist and pay thousands of dollars in yearly penalties; or form an Alternative Organizational Structure for the schools, under which the towns would retain control of their own schools but have a combined board to oversee separate budgets for each locality.

In the end, committee members voted unanimously to further investigate establishing an AOS, which Freve acknowledged could be “a burden” for towns to administer.

Committee members agreed to meet again Jan. 26 to further discuss whether that formula should be put before voters for approval.

The state’s deadline for reorganization plans to be approved is Jan. 30.

Committee members raised questions about how state education funding would be distributed under an AOS, as well as what segments of operation would be under local control and what would be managed by the regional AOS board. All special education, transportation and finance issues would be under the auspices of the central office, Freve said, as well as consistency of curriculum and contracts.

SAD 37 Superintendent David Beal noted that under an AOS system, with distinct boards for each school in each town, the demands of a regional superintendent to attend all the meetings and distribute all the budgets would be very complex and time-consuming.

All members of the committee expressed a need for further study of the guidelines for creating an AOS, and Freve said he would supply the panel with documentation to help them decide if they should recommend that structure to their towns.

Harry Fish, chairman of the Jonesport-Beals consolidated board, reported that there has been some local discussion of starting an independent, private school to avoid any need to join any type of regionalization, but he added that the expense might be prohibitive.

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