Voters in the communities of Alton, Bradley, Greenbush, Milford and Old Town will decide Tuesday, Jan. 27, whether to consolidate their two school systems into Regional School Unit 16. If Old Town and any two of the other communities support the reorganization, the new model will bring the region into compliance with a new state law that aims to reduce the number of school districts and other school administrative units in Maine.
Alton, Bradley, Greenbush and Milford make up Union 90, which would merge with the Old Town School District under the terms of the RSU 16 plan.
A 25-member committee with representation from all five towns hammered out the plan over the past 16 months, and the Old Town school board has voted unanimously to accept it. The plan provides for a standardized, coordinated curriculum in all the participating schools, streamlines administrative costs and distributes the funding of the RSU according to the student population and property values of each town. While the consolidation is unlikely to achieve savings in the first year, a recent study conducted by a member of the Old Town school board determined that the towns could save between $250,000 and $500,000 each year after that.
Conversely, communities that fail to endorse or join the RSU will lose 2 percent of their state education funding each year until they come into compliance with the new state law.
Municipal leaders in the five communities said Tuesday it is hard to tell how public sentiment is running. Concerns include the loss of local control, the possibility of increased costs, the loss of municipal ownership of school buildings and property, and the possibility — in the four smaller communities that make up Union 90 — of losing the coveted “school choice” status that allows parents to select which area high school their children will attend.
“The biggest concern I’m hearing is that we’re just giving away the school we paid for — we don’t have much debt on it, and we’d be absorbing some of the debt from the new Old Town Elementary School,” said Brian Engstrom, chairman of the Alton Board of Selectmen. School choice is also a big concern, he said; although the law protects school choice in towns that currently have it, consolidation would increase the cost to towns of sending Union 90 students into any high school other than Old Town High School.
Engstrom said Alton selectmen are supportive of the consolidation plan. If voters nix it, the town would lose $18,570 a year in school funding and have to absorb the cost of hiring its own superintendent, negotiating teacher contracts and other expenses, he said.
In Milford, Town Manager Barbara Cox said her town’s annual state-funding penalty of $69,081 would be less onerous than the increased costs associated with consolidation, such as the expense of bringing the salaries of teachers at the Lewis Libby School up to par with teacher salaries in Old Town.
“My sense is that most people do not realize the magnitude of this decision. I was very disappointed with the number of voters who turned out for the public hearing,” she said. “This [consolidation] is sort of like an old-fashioned Catholic marriage — once you’re in it, you can’t get out.”
Greenbush Town Manager Robert Littlefield said between 20 and 30 residents attended the public hearing last week. “Most seemed to be not in favor [of the consolidation plan],” he said. Once the Helen Dunn School becomes the property of the new RSU, he said, there’s nothing to prevent the RSU board from closing the school and busing Greenbush youngsters elsewhere for classes.
Melissa Doane, town manager of Bradley, said Tuesday that the possible loss of school choice is the issue on most voters’ minds. Doane and her family live in nearby Milford, a community she selected because it offers a choice of area high schools. She’s not sure how she’ll vote, and she doesn’t have a good feel for whether Bradley voters will support the consolidation or not.
Even during the June presidential primary election, she said, voter turnout in Bradley was very low.
“I really don’t perceive people coming in on a cold day in January to vote on this,” she said. Bradley’s state education funding would be cut by $35,150 a year if voters there reject the plan.
In Old Town, where the school board has given its unanimous approval of the plan, City Manager Peggy Daigle said many people remain confused about the details and implications of the consolidation. Because so many Union 90 students already attend Old Town schools as they get older, she said, people are unsure what the new administrative model entails.
“More than anything, people have a huge sentiment to do what’s right for the kids,” Daigle said.
She, too, is concerned that voters will not turn out on the 27th, noting that attendance at a recent public hearing on the consolidation was sparse. Old Town stands to lose $175,733 a year in state funding if the plan fails.
A link to the RSU 16 reorganization plan can be found on the Web site of the Old Town School Department, www.otsd.org.