April 19, 2018
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Hurdles remain in school consolidation talks

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

BLUE HILL, Maine — Representatives from School Unions 76 and 93 in the Blue Hill peninsula area will likely meet in the coming months to discuss restarting school consolidation talks.

But success in developing a reorganization plan for the districts may depend less on conditions in the region and more on what happens in Augusta next year.

“We’re still in a holding pattern,” said Mary Cummins, of Brooklin, who was the co-chairman of the regional planning committee for the districts. “We’re waiting to see what the Legislature does. We really can’t decide what to do to meet the requirements until we know what they are going to be.”

There have been informal discussions about restarting the planning process after the effort to repeal the consolidation law was defeated in November balloting. But there has been little effort to begin the formal planning work and no date has been set to restart the talks.

The previously proposed district for the region included the four towns in Union 76, the four towns in Union 93, and the town of Surry, which had been part of Union 92. Union 76 contains Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick. Union 93 is made up of Blue Hill, Penobscot, Castine and Brooksville.

In balloting on the proposal, voters in Surry and Castine approved the plan, but voters in the remaining towns rejected it, leaving all of the towns out of compliance with the law.

Since then, Surry has contracted with Union 93 to supply superintendent and other administrative services.

Since the plan was rejected, the towns have done nothing to develop a new plan, first waiting to see if the Legislature would amend or repeal the law, and then waiting for the vote on the citizen’s initiative to repeal it.

There may be ways for the districts to work together to find efficiencies, said Ben Wooten, of Blue Hill, the other co-chairman of the regional planning committee, who suggested that the state could help the process by being less rigid in its approach to nonconforming districts.

“Instead of taking a dogmatic stand — a ‘do-it-our-way’ approach — it might help if they would sit down with us, see where the problems are and see if there’s anything they can help with,” Wooten said.

There were many objections to the plan that voters rejected. A key concern was the requirement to adopt a unified contract for all the schools in the new Regional School Unit or Alternative Organizational Structure. That requires negotiations and most people anticipated that would mean “negotiating up” to the highest wages.

“It was going to cost more to have one contract,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense.”

Cummins added that the question of high schools will be an issue that will need to be resolved. There are two high schools in the two school unions: Deer Isle-Stonington High School in Union 76, a public high school; and George Stevens Academy in Union 93, a private academy in Blue Hill that serves the majority of students in that union.

The law, she said, requires the AOS or RSU to support a public high school. Towns would have to support the public high school through the district budget, but then would have to pay tuition to have their students attend George Stevens Academy.

“We’d be raising taxes to pay for the high school, but choice is still part of the law and we would have to pay tuition to George Stevens,” she said. “That’s going to be a stumbling block. I don’t know how we get around that.”

Union 76 Superintendent Robert Webster noted that there are some legislative initiatives that could remove some of the roadblocks to forming a peninsula area district.

Some bills left over from the last legislative session would remove the penalty permanently for not consolidating, add a method to opt out or withdraw from an RSU or AOS, and require that the education department report subsidy amounts to individual towns in an AOS or RSU.

Adding those amendments could pave the way for planning talks to begin again on the peninsula and make it possible for the towns to develop an acceptable consolidation plan, Webster said.

“Without these changes, I think it’s relatively unlikely that consolidation would happen,” he said. “With the changes, I don’t know if there is a probability it will happen, but it certainly makes it a possibility.”

State Rep. Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, said Wednesday that he is optimistic that the Legislature will act on at least some of those issues which could be included in a generic education bill. There are a number of issues that could be addressed, Schatz said, including contract negotiations, the opt-out provision and the minimum size required for an RSU or AOS.

Schatz added that there may be an organized effort to work with the Education Department to include these provisions in the law.

“We’re going to work to see if [these issues] can be aired and go forward,” he said. “I hope the administration can be sensitive to these things and recognize that they are not just a form of resistance, but are legitimate logistical problems that need to be addressed.”

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