June 22, 2018
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Brewer-area communities resume RSU process

By Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN Staff

BREWER, Maine — Work to create a new Regional School Unit between the K-8 schools that send their high school students to Brewer has begun anew.

For the past six months, the school departments, which include Orrington, Dedham, SAD 63 and the Airline communities of CSD 8, have been in a holding pattern waiting to see if voters would repeal the school consolidation law at the November polls. That measure was defeated.

So now it’s back to the drawing board, but it’s not the first step, Don Varnum, chairman of the SAD 63 board, said on Saturday. SAD 63 includes the communities of Eddington, Holden and Clifton and CSD 8 includes the communities of Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn.

“We have a template that we built” over two years while working to create an RSU with the nine area communities and Brewer, he said. “We obviously learned from that experience and will use that as a guide, removing Brewer as appropriate.”

State officials had suggested that Brewer join with Dedham, Orrington, SAD 63 and CSD 8 to create RSU 15, but after going through the lengthy process of creating the proposed RSU, the planning committee discovered it would be costly because Brewer pays its teachers and staff considerably more than the other communities.

The jump in costs to create a level pay scale for all employees in the proposed RSU 15 would have eliminated any cost savings, Brewer Superintendent Daniel Lee explained on Friday.

“It became evident that we couldn’t because Brewer is so different than the other schools,” he said.

In addition to costs, participants were uncomfortable with debt issues and the fact that under the proposed RSU 15, Brewer would have controlled 44 percent of the voting power of the new school board.

After voters in all 10 communities rejected the plan by a 6-to-1 margin during a referendum held last January, Brewer moved ahead and got permission from Education Commissioner Susan Gendron to stand alone.

“Brewer met all the criteria to stand alone,” Lee said. “It has [more than] 1,250 students, it has a K through 12th grade program. It was able to demonstrate cost savings in the four categories — special education, system administration, transportation, and facilities.

“Just like Bangor, Brewer was able to meet all the criteria,” he said.

While nothing officially has been done to create the K-8 RSU since Brewer stepped out of the picture, the topic was discussed several times over the two years of RSU 15 planning committee meetings.

Benefits for the K-8 unit would be better-aligned teacher salaries and curriculums, and a more balanced governing board, said Lee, who also serves as superintendent for Dedham.

The law requires each of the RSUs created statewide to provide K-12 education, and with Brewer out of the proposed RSU 15 picture, an agreement to allow a waiver was put on the table, SAD 63 Superintendent Ray Hart said Saturday.

“What the commissioner did was to say to Brewer you can go on your own if you provide a high school to the surrounding area schools,” he said. “They will be our high school of record.”

The agreement or contract between the surrounding schools and Brewer has not been established, but for years about half of the students at Brewer High School have come from the sending school districts.

“That agreement [between Brewer and the schools] cannot be exclusive because of school choice,” Lee said. “Under the law, that always remains.”

Students from the districts with contracts still would have school choice and be able to attend a different high school.

With the election day vote still fresh, talks have just begun between school leaders in the outlying K-8 communities about how to move forward, Varnum said.

“We haven’t chosen our partners yet,” he said. “The first step will be to choose our partners.”

Once the new RSU members have agreed to work together, then a letter of intent will be sent to the Department of Education for approval.

Orrington School Committee met election night and the SAD 63 board held a special meeting on Nov. 9 to renew the RSU discussion. Dedham School Board will meet on Monday to discuss the issue.

To avoid state penalties for not joining an RSU, the school departments must form a new RSU, and get voter approval in the next seven months.

“If we do not consolidate by the 30th of June, then we are going to face a penalty,” Lee said.

The state has waived penalties for not creating an RSU for the 10 local communities this year.

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