Down East panel wants further AOS study

Posted Jan. 27, 2009, at 10:36 p.m.

HARRINGTON, Maine — Amid a multitude of questions over administrative and financial arrangements, the Regional Planning Committee failed Monday night to reach consensus on whether to recommend that area schools form an Alternative Organizational Structure.

The 20-member committee, which represents 10 southern Washington County towns, plans to meet again within a few weeks to continue discussions.

Voters last fall in the six SAD 37 communities of Harrington, Milbridge, Columbia Falls, Columbia, Cherryfield and Addison, plus Jonesport-Beals and Beddington and Deblois, rejected a referendum that would form a regional school unit.

Because the state has mandated some form of consolidation for all of Maine’s smaller school districts, the Regional Planning Committee has to come up with another option.

An AOS is similar to a regional school unit except that individual towns retain some local control of their schools. State subsidies would funnel through a central office, just as with an RSU.

Searsport superintendent of schools Ray Freve, a state-appointed facilitator who has assisted other areas with their plans, pointed out Monday that a major part of the AOS system requires all of the communities to enter into an “interlocal agreement” that will define each town’s financial responsibilities to the combined AOS board.

A legally binding document, the agreement would explain what assets belong to each school system, and what portion of the state education payments made to the AOS would go to individual towns.

“A bunch of lawyers are gonna get rich,” Freve quipped in reference to the agreement, which also would spell out the powers of local school boards. The AOS’ central office’s responsibilities would include staffing, transportation, school calendar and a “consistent curriculum.” Local boards would retain decisions over all spe-cific school programs, as long as the “consistent curriculum” requirement is met.

Addison resident Everett Grant, a Regional Planning Committee member who has been on SAD 37’s board for 10 years, said, “The only results of an AOS are a distracted superintendent, a perpetual fight over money and the avoidance of thousands of dollars in fines.”

Grant was referring to the state Department of Education’s plans to punish districts that fail to regionalize by withholding state funds and imposing monetary penalties every year.

In response to questions about how state funding would be distributed, Freve suggested each town keep detailed records of expenditures in the various schools; though he noted it was unclear whether the Department of Education would provide an accurate, line-by-line analysis of what part of the state payments are due to each school.

Chairman Harry Fish of the Jonesport-Beals CSD said, “Let’s put the agreement together and see how it looks.” Fish previously has said that most residents he represents were against an RSU for fear of losing local control of schools.

Grant, who supported an RSU last year, said in an interview, “Everybody’s concerned about dollars,” but in an AOS, “I think there’s zero educational benefit, and I don’t see any significant long-term savings.”

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