EASTPORT, Maine — Nine area school boards voted Thursday night to form a regional planning committee to work toward forming an alternative organizational structure.
An AOS, if voted into place by July 1, would stave off hefty penalties set to be levied by the state Department of Education on school districts that fail to consolidate administrations as required by state law passed in 2007.
An AOS could save money and central office costs, said Union 104 Superintendent Terri Lux, who added that the penalty just assessed against Union 104 is $107,857.
An AOS affects only those expenditures handled by the central office, such as administration and special education. Consolidation could mean that two of the three superintendents serving the area no longer would be needed.
Lux said Friday she is unsure if the timeline will work.
“The only thing that is helping us is that we have a plan, a boilerplate plan, that we just have to modify to fit our needs,” she said.
Towns represented Thursday night include School Union 104 (Eastport, Charlotte, Dennysville, Pembroke and Perry), School Union 106 (Alexander, Baring, Calais and Robbinston) and SAD 19 (Lubec). All nine boards voted unanimously in favor of forming a planning committee and signed a letter of intent, with the exception of Pembroke, whose board lacked a quorum. Pembroke will need to have a special meeting to take its vote, according to Lux.
The move is similar to one under way in the Machias area, where 11 towns are pursuing the creation of an AOS to avoid state penalties.
In Lubec, Superintendent Brian Carpenter told voters at a recent public hearing that there was not enough time for Lubec to create an AOS. On Friday, he still was unsure.
“We are on an incredibly tight schedule,” he said. “There are a lot of variables.”
Carpenter would not say whether joining an AOS was good for the Lubec school system. “It is what the law requires. We are being strong-armed [by the state] into it. Time will tell.”
Towns that previously voted against consolidation are rethinking their opposition since the passage of LD 570, An Act To Improve the Laws Governing the Consolidation of School Administrative Units. The bill allows each town to receive its own subsidy payments and provides a way to withdraw from the AOS should a town decide to do so.
An AOS also needs only 700 students to qualify, where the original law required a minimum of 1,200 students in a reorganized Regional School Unit. There are approximately 1,000 students in the combined Eastport area and the combined Machias area, which are considering AOS status.
State Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Friday: “When it became apparent that we were going to be able get the bill passed, I reached out to the superintendents back in late February to urge that they do everything they can to be poised to hit the ground running as soon as the bill becomes law. It passed the House and Senate unanimously at the end of March and was signed into law by the governor on April 1.”
Raye said the Down East superintendents involved did a lot of groundwork before April 1 and have “established an aggressive timetable to get through the process. The towns will now be racing against the clock to pull it all together before July 1 in order to avoid penalties.”
Each town must now hold a public hearing, then take a collective vote on the AOS before July 1. The regional planning committee will meet at Shead High School for three consecutive nights, Tuesday through Thursday, to hammer the plan together before the public hearing schedule begins. A vote in all 10 towns will be held near the end of June.
The vote for the 11 towns in the Machias area is set for April 29.