ELLSWORTH, Maine — As of July 1, the first day the state’s reorganized school districts came into operation, Hancock County has five districts.
Three of them reorganized under the state law requiring consolidation of school administrations, and two did not.
In addition, several towns in the northern part of the county reorganized with Brewer, Orrington and Holden.
July 1 marked the start of the new school administrative year and was the official start date for the newly reorganized districts to begin operation. The three new districts in the county have hit the ground running, according to the administrators in those districts.
“We’ve been official since July 1, but a great deal of work took place prior to that,” said Bill Webster, superintendent for Regional School Unit 24. “I’ve said before that we’ve done about one year of work in three months.”
RSU 24 is the largest district in the county and includes the 12 towns of Ellsworth, Eastbrook, Mariaville, Gouldsboro, Winter Harbor, Steuben, Lamoine, Franklin, Hancock, Sorrento, Sullivan and Waltham.
On July 1, Webster said, the district combined the four central offices at one location in Ellsworth, and the process of reorganizing will continue in order to be ready for schools to open in September.
“There is still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “One of the challenges is that we can’t do all we want to do as soon as we want to. But we’ve done a lot, and we should feel good about what we have accomplished.”
The financial piece of the reorganization is in place, and the district met its payroll last week.
Webster estimated the district has reduced its total combined budget by about 1 percent through consolidation, mainly through the elimination of positions and savings from combining insurance polices. He anticipated additional savings in the future.
“I know that there is a lot more money that can be saved by combining purchasing for supplies, food service,” he said. “But that takes time.”
Auditors have begun reviewing the books from the member districts, and it’s possible there may be more savings for individual towns if there is more surplus than anticipated, he said.
He stressed that the prospect of reduced funding in the future from both the state and federal governments will put pressures on all schools in the state, outside of any factors related to consolidation. Anticipating those reductions, he said, the district will have to cut an estimated $1 million from its $33 million budget even before they look at other aspects of next year’s budget.
The town of Otis was the only town that voted not to join RSU 24. For this year, the RSU will provide administrative services for the school department there. Webster said they were scheduled to have the first school committee meeting this week.
Joining with RSU 24 is one option for Otis, according to Webster. The town’s regional planning committee was scheduled to hold its first meeting Thursday to discuss its options.
Webster said he hopes the committee will have a plan ready for voters by this fall. If Otis voters decide not to join the RSU, they will have to decide on a different administrative structure to run the school after June 2010. He said there is some sentiment on the RSU board that the administrative arrangement with the RSU should not be a long-term agreement.
RSU 25 includes schools from Bucksport, Orland and the former SAD 18 towns of Prospect and Verona Island. Bucksport provided superintendent services for SAD 18 for years and had agreed to provide the same service for Orland when the consolidation law was adopted. Still, there was considerable work to be done before the districts could begin operating as one.
Although there have been “bumps in the road,” the transformation has gone relatively smoothly, according to RSU 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby. “We’re all up and running,” Boothby said.
The new district is prepared to meet its first payroll on Friday, but there are still details to be completed before September, he said.
The transfer of property from the individual school departments to the RSU is close to being completed, Boothby said. “We’ve completed the required surveys, and we’re finishing up the legal work on that,” he said.
Much of the RSU board’s time this summer will be spent on policy work. The board already has adopted the Bucksport school department’s policies so that they were in place when the new district began operations.
Boothby said the board will review policies from Bucksport and Orland, the two towns that have had operating schools, and also policy samples from the Maine School Management Association to determine what, if any, changes need to be made.
He said he anticipates completing work on state-required policies by the time school starts in September.
The districts already have transportation contracts in place, but Boothby said the staff also would review bus routes in the member towns.
“We want to take a look at the transportation and the timing,” he said. “We want to be as efficient as we can make them.”
An alternative structure
Residents of Mount Desert Island were the driving force behind amendments to the consolidation law that allowed alternatives to the RSU model. The towns of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert, Tremont, Frenchboro, Swan’s Island and Cranberry Isles formed an Alternative Organizational Structure with the town of Trenton, which maintained the school union structure.
“People felt comfortable with what they had,” said Superintendent Rob Liebow. “[The AOS] kept the unionlike structure so that the towns kept control of their own boards, their financial books and their own schools.”
The district was unique, he said, in that it already had accomplished many of the goals of consolidation. The towns already had worked together to establish coordinated curriculums throughout the system to ensure that students were all on the same playing field when they got to the island’s regional high school.
Not a lot changed on July 1, according to Liebow.
“It’s been pretty much business as usual,” he said.
The addition of Trenton to the district was the only major change. The alternative structure’s staff worked with the Union 92 staff to develop a budget for Trenton for the new year and to provide a seamless transition, Liebow said.
Adding a new school to the district required increased staff in the central office: an assistant director for special education, upgrading one bookkeeper from a school year position, and adding a part-time assistant to the curriculum director.
The increased costs for those positions were offset by Trenton’s share of the central office budget.
“There were no big cost increases,” he said, “and there were no dramatic cost savings either.”
Most of the towns in Union 93 and Union 76 rejected the reorganization plan for the two districts. The defeat of the plan left those districts as nonconforming districts, and it also left Surry, which had been part of Union 92, without superintendent services as of July 1.
Nothing changed for the four towns in the district — Castine, Blue Hill, Penobscot and Brooksville — as of July 1, according to Union 93 Superintendent Art Wittine. The Union 93 board, however, did approve an agreement to provide administrative services for the Surry school department. That agreement officially began on July 1, but as with the other districts, much of the organizational work had been done in the months before.
“I wouldn’t say it has gone smoothly,” Wittine said. “The folks in the office had to do a lot of extra work to try to be ready.”
Despite the extra work, he said, there have been no major glitches. Union 93 hired an additional person to oversee the Surry school’s financial operations. In addition, the union will provide superintendent and special education services for the school.
Originally nonconforming districts faced a loss of subsidy penalty for failing to consolidate. But the Legislature approved a one-year delay on enforcing those penalties and the governor signed the bill.
All of the towns in Union 93 are minimum receivers and had prepared their budgets anticipating a 50 percent cut in subsidy.
“That did not happen, so they will all receive their full subsidy, which is not a whole lot,” Wittine said. “But that’s not found money. We didn’t budget for it, and we can’t spend it.”
Those funds will be added to surplus and will be used to offset future budget costs, he said.
Likewise, the July 1 deadline had little impact on the Union 76 schools in Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick. The only concern with the deadline, according to Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw, co-chairman of the school committee, was the subsidy penalty that was delayed. The district had raised $172,000 in anticipation of the penalty, he said.
“We had no choice,” he said. “It was either raise those funds or cut back on programs.”
Seven of the towns in the proposed new district rejected the consolidation plan with voters in Surry and Castine the only ones voting for the plan. Both Greenlaw and Wittine indicated there have been no additional meetings to discuss merging the two districts.
“I don’t see any point until after the referendum,” said Greenlaw, who heads the group that has spearheaded the effort to repeal the consolidation law.
“I don’t see how you can consolidate those two offices,” he said. “I don’t see any savings moneywise.”
Wittine was more concise.
“Why would I want to continue an exercise in futility?” he asked.