Voters in a number of Maine communities are heading to the polls today to decide the fate of 18 proposed school reorganization plans.
The votes come just days before the deadline set by state law, which required a municipal vote on a school consolidation plan by Jan. 30. It is a large block of plans to go before voters on a single day, matching the total of plans decided on Nov. 4, 2008. The 18 plans represent consolidation proposals for 110 individual school districts with an estimated enrollment of 34,888 students.
Voters approved 12 of the 18 plans voted on in November. Earlier this month, only one of four plans to go before voters was approved. Voters in the Waterville-Winslow area approved an Alternative Organizational Structure earlier this month, while voters in the Calais-Eastport area, in SAD 42 (Mars Hill area) and SAD 45 (Washburn area) in Aroostook County, and in the SAD 23 and Hermon areas turned down their plans.
Although he would not predict the outcome of specific votes, Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said he did not expect to see the 75 percent approval rate as in the November votes.
“Those that are coming at the end fall into two categories,” Connerty-Marin said Monday. “Some are last because of difficulties or resistance they encountered along the way. In a number of cases, they’ve done good work, but they were slowed by questions that came up. Some were slow to find partners.”
The proposals and the referendums are in response to the law passed in June 2007 requiring the state’s 290 school districts be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units governed by regional school boards.
Some of the districts voting on plans today had put their planning efforts on hold during the last legislative session, waiting to see what changes would be made to the law before moving forward with their planning.
A bill approved by the Legislature in April amended the original law to address problems some communities encountered in attempting to draw up plans to join with other school districts. The law provides for reductions in subsidies for school districts that do not make progress toward consolidating administrations.
The changes to the original law allowed reorganized school units to establish their own cost-sharing plan among member towns, allowed communities that received a minimum state subsidy to retain those funds when they moved to a reorganized school system, and allowed certain districts to be composed of fewer students than the minimum 1,200, among other provisions.
The revisions also addressed issues surrounding local control of schools under reorganized school boards and allowed the commissioner of education to approve plans for alternative organizational structures.
The systems that would be reorganized if voters approve plans today are located throughout the state from the Boothbay area, to the Bethel area in the west, the St. John Valley in the north, and other areas along the coast.
The consolidation of the Brewer, Airline CSD and Orrington administrations, if approved by voters today, would be the largest of the proposed districts that would be created. That district would unite five school districts with a total enrollment of 3,296.
The proposed district for SAD 44 (Bethel area) and the Rangeley area, would be the smallest of the new districts created by a positive vote today. Although that district would combine nine school districts, the total enrollment would be 1,087, just above the minimum enrollment required by the consolidation law. Most districts are required to have an enrollment of 1,200 students.
According to Connerty-Marin, only one proposed plan — for Acton and the Wells-Ogunquit CSD — remains to be voted on after today. That plan is scheduled to go before voters on March 17. Other plans may be developed after this round of voting, he said.
“There’s still plenty of work to do,” Connerty-Marin said Monday. “Some plans will be approved [today], and some places will vote ‘no.’ Some of those will be going back to the table to see if they can come up with a plan that works for them.”
One of the plans up for a vote today is just such a plan. Voters rejected the initial plan for St. John Valley school districts covering areas including Madawaska, Allagash, Fort Kent, Van Buren, Frenchville and Grand Isle during balloting on Nov. 4. Since then, Commissioner Susan Gendron has approved an Alternative Organizational Structure for two of the partners included in that plan — SAD 10 (Allagash) and SAD 27 (Fort Kent).
“A number of groups have indicated that if voters reject the plan, they still want to come back and work on a new plan,” Connerty-Marin said. “Some have written that into their reorganization plan.”
Six of the plans call for an AOS, an option approved by the Legislature last year in addition to the regional school units mandated in the original school restructuring law.
Voters in two school districts — Mount Desert Island and the Waterville, Vassalboro, Winslow district — already have approved AOS plans.
Districts that already have approved their plans will work to implement them by the start of the 2009 school year which begins July 1. Others that may approve amended or new plans later this year likely will have to work on implementation in the 2010 school year.