FORT KENT — School administrators hope the third time is the charm when SAD 27 and SAD 10 voters go to the polls for a special referendum May 28 to decide the fate of a proposed Alternative Organizational Structure.
If approved, the referendum would combine the administrations of the two districts into one in accordance with the state’s school consolidation law.
In a November 2008 referendum, St. John Valley voters turned down a proposed AOS combining SAD 10, Allagash; SAD 27, Fort Kent; SAD 33, St. Agatha; SAD 24, Van Buren; and the Madawaska School Department into one administrative unit.
Following that defeat, Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron approved the Alternative Organizational Structure combining SAD 10 and SAD 27.
In January, voters in the seven municipalities making up SAD 27 overwhelmingly approved the proposal, while those in SAD 10 soundly rejected it, effectively halting the consolidation.
During a sparsely attended public hearing Monday night at the Fort Kent Community High School, district Superintendent Patrick O’Neill said specific concerns cited by SAD 10 officials have been addressed in the new proposal.
“The sticking point had been under the new law the commissioner needed to approve any request from any district who wanted to bail out of an AOS,” O’Neill said. “Further review of the law with some negotiations showed that any district who gives 60 days’ notice they want to bail out does not need the commissioner’s ap-proval.”
Within a decade this could become a major consideration for the tiny district in Allagash, O’Neill said.
“Residents were concerned they would be paying into an AOS when they have no children attending the schools,” he said.
Population trends show Allagash, which currently has fewer than 300 residents, will have a significant drop in its student population within 10 years, O’Neill said.
Allagash currently sends its students to elementary and high school in Fort Kent since the town’s one consolidated school closed due to declining enrollment in 2003.
O’Neill stressed that should the voters approve the revised alternative structure plan, “it will be business as usual” for the communities.
While the two districts would operate under one superintendent for administrative purposes, the structure allows each to retain its own school board.
At the same time, failure to pass the alternative structure in time for the state-mandated July 1 deadline has significant fiscal consequences.
SAD 27 faces a $169,000 fine for failure to comply, while SAD 10 would be penalized $6,000.
“It would be disastrous,” O’Neill said of the potential fines. “We would have to look at increasing the mill rate during these difficult times when we are trying to stretch dollars as much as we can.”
That money, O’Neill said, could be put to much better use, “like educating children.”
O’Neill is optimistic the plan will again pass in Fort Kent, and he added everything he’s heard from SAD 10 officials indicates residents are ready to approve the alternative structure proposal.
While the district re-organization movement statewide was aimed at increasing efficiencies, O’Neill said, the process has been long and time consuming.
“We’ve spent 22 months on this,” he said. “Personally I’ve spent close to 300 hours, and a lot of other folks have spent a great deal of time on this, too, and there is no way I can thank them enough.”
In the proposed alternative structure, there are provisions for other districts to join at any point.
For now SAD 33 in Frenchville, SAD 24 in Van Buren and the Madawaska School Department have opted to take a wait and see attitude before entering a consolidated district as the state Legislature deals with petitions looking to repeal the penalty component of the law.
“The AOS will create one district for us and that’s the start of building efficiencies and saving costs,” O’Neill said. “Would I rather have been spending my time doing something else? Yes, mainly educating children.”