Voters in Hermon, Levant and Carmel will finally have a chance this Saturday to weigh in on a proposal to merge the towns’ schools as part of a state-mandated effort to slash education costs.
The proposal would merge Hermon and SAD 23 into a new regional school unit, or RSU, that would be led by a 12-member board with representatives from each of the three towns. Voters in each community must approve the consolidation plan this Saturday for it to take effect.
Voters can cast ballots on the issue from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at each town’s voting locations.
But so far, the proposal has received a chilly reception from school committee members and local officials in all three communities.
Two weeks ago, the board of directors of SAD 23, which comprises Carmel and Levant, voted unanimously to oppose the consolidation plan. Then last week, the Carmel Board of Selectmen followed suit with their own unanimous vote against the proposal.
In early December, the Hermon School Committee cast a unanimous “no confidence” vote in the consolidation plan. While all three votes were symbolic, they underscored the strong concerns among some about whether merging the programs would save the state or the towns any money.
“We’re very much in sync in terms of curriculum,” SAD 23 Superintendent John Backus said last week. “It all comes down to what’s in our towns’ best interest financially.”
One of the key issues is teacher salaries. Teachers in Hermon have a “much higher pay scale” than their counterparts in SAD 23, according to the consolidation proposal filed with the Maine Department of Education. Additionally, Hermon’s medical and dental costs for both teachers and staff are much higher than those at SAD 23.
Backus and Patricia Duran, the superintendent of the Hermon School Department, estimated in 2007 that it would cost $350,000 to bring the SAD 23 teachers up to the Hermon rate. That figure did not include the additional expenses associated with offering more costly medical and dental benefits.
But rejecting the consolidation plan could put a serious drain on each towns’ education budgets.
The state law requiring that schools consider reorganizing or consolidating includes a provision allowing the state to penalize those towns or SADs that do not comply by scaling back state funding. The newly formed regional school units are supposed to have at least 2,500 students, although state education officials can approve exceptions down to 1,200 students.
Under estimates released by the Department of Education, SAD 23 would face a penalty of $141,837 while Hermon would face a penalty of $144,605.
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, said Wednesday that voters have approved 17 reorganization plans so far, with an additional 30 still pending. In some cases, voters in individual towns elected not to consolidate but the larger proposal will proceed as planned in the other participating communities.
Nine consolidation plans statewide have been rejected by voters so far. Towns that reject plans are encouraged to go back to the table to consider another option, he said.
For more information on the consolidation plan, go to SAD 23’s Web site at: http://www.sad38.k12.me.us/.