Penquis region rethinks school consolidation

Posted June 06, 2010, at 8:54 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:38 a.m.

GUILFORD, Maine — Both optimism and skepticism were shown for consolidation of school administrative units Wednesday when representatives of five school districts from Dover-Foxcroft to Jackman met in Guilford.

Many of the representatives from SAD 13 (Jackman), SAD 4 (Guilford), SAD 68 (Dover-Foxcroft), SAD 46 (Dexter), SAD 41 (Milo) and Foxcroft Academy who attended the meeting hosted by SAD 4 directors had examined administrative consolidation previously with little success.

SAD 46 and the town of Harmony did form an alternative organizational structure allowed under the state’s reorganization law passed in 2007 and later amended. It requires state school districts to consolidate administrations as a cost-saving measure.

SAD 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns said Wednesday that his board of directors was neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic about the possibilities of consolidating, but that the directors did feel they should re-examine the possibilities because of new changes in the reorganization law.

Stearns said his district has focused on efficiencies and has consolidated some efforts. The district provides occupational therapy services to SAD 68, saving that district $50,000; it provides transportation services to Union 60 (Greenville), saving the union $30,000; and it is closing its last two outlying elementary schools, saving about $385,000.

SAD 4 and other districts also share successful adult education and vocational programs which prompted Piscataquis Valley Adult Education Cooperative Director Thelma Regan to suggest there may be other ventures for consolidation.

“We can have more than one shining diamond out there,” Regan said, noting that it might take a new configuration based on the best assets of each school unit.

For other ventures to work, SAD 68 director Jenny Chase said, biases should be set aside so the discussions can focus on the community as a whole.

“I do feel we must thoughtfully look at what we can do and not at what we can’t do or don’t want to do,” she said. “The more we can think of ourselves as one, I think, the easier it will be.”

Frustration was expressed over the fruitlessness of earlier discussions. A few years ago, school officials discussed the possibility of a regional high school since some districts are faced with aging buildings and dwindling enrollment. But that discussion and later conversations held on the reorganization law produced little change.

SAD 68 director Mary Downs said she wanted to be reassured that the other districts were as serious about making some changes as her district is.

“I guess we’re gun-shy a little bit,” she said, referring to the earlier efforts.

Some participants, however, expressed optimism about regrouping their efforts even though it may come too late for some school units to avoid a state penalty in 2011. School districts or units that have not consolidated have until July 1, 2010, to form a regional school unit or an alternative organizational structure to avoid financial penalty. The participants also noted that any recommended changes would take much effort to sway local voters.

Norman Higgins and Ray Poulin, state education consultants for the reorganization process who attended Wednesday’s meeting, encouraged the districts to continue the discussions. They noted that other schools that initially had not consolidated, such as those in the Mars Hill and Ma-chias areas, now were doing so. Poulin said he and Higgins would help the districts through the consolidation process if serious intent were shown.

Although the state was blamed for changing the rules throughout the consolidation process which caused confusion and frustration, former superintendent Ann Bridge of Parkman said any energy now should be focused on the future to find ways to share services and improve education.

“I’m hoping we can be a model for education,” she said.

Sue Mackey Andrews, who served as co-chairwoman of SAD 68’s regional planning committee for the discussions that began in 2007, agreed.

“I do feel this is a very different discussion,” Andrews said, noting that some people hadn’t felt respected in earlier discussions.

“This is about our kids, and this is about the future of Piscataquis County,” she said.

The county has the highest percentage of children participating in free and reduced lunches in the state and one of the highest unemployment rates, she noted. The only way to lift the children out of poverty is education.

Andrews said local control was lost when the state said it would fund 55 percent of education, and communities need to regain that control. Augusta doesn’t know what local pupils need, but local communities do, she said.

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