Blue Hill Peninsula ends consolidation effort

Posted July 27, 2010, at 9:37 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:08 p.m.

BLUE HILL, Maine — A second attempt to consolidate the schools in the Blue Hill Peninsula region has ended without a reorganization plan.

Representatives from the nine towns in the area agreed last week to discontinue the planning process that had begun this spring. The state had authorized the planning work, but finances and the decision by the Blue Hill School Committee to seek a different, smaller reorganization plan put an end to the planning process.

“It’s all over, once again; for the time being,” said Robert Webster, superintendent for School Union 76.

The plan had sought to merge the schools in Union 76 (Deer Isle-Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick), Union 93 (Blue Hill, Penobscot, Castine and Brooksville) and Surry. Voters in all of the towns except Castine and Surry rejected a plan in 2009 to consolidate those schools.

Representatives from the nine towns had been meeting this spring to discuss again the possibility of forming an alternative organizational structure or AOS. Last week’s session, set to discuss cost-sharing formulas, ended that process.

“Basically, [the representative from Blue Hill] told the committee that they intended to pursue a five-town AOS,” Webster said.

Although there was some discussion and some of the representatives expressed regret that the nine towns would not continue to pursue an AOS together, that pretty much ended the process, Webster said.

Mark Hurvitt, superintendent for School Union 93, said the Blue Hill School Committee had decided at its July meeting to pursue a five-town AOS consisting of the four Union 93 towns and Surry. Surry, which was left without a superintendent when the previous consolidation plan was rejected, has contracted with Union 93 for administrative services.

“It all came down to the numbers,” Hurvitt said this week. “There was no compelling financial incentive for anyone to continue, except for one.”

The AOS committee had reviewed two cost-sharing formulas for splitting the central office expenses under a merged AOS. Under one formula, Deer Isle-Stonington would have saved almost $100,000 on central office expenses. Both formulas, however, resulted in an increase in those costs for Blue Hill.

The five-town AOS decision leaves the Union 76 towns hanging on several levels. Webster noted that without a partner for an AOS, those towns would face the penalties imposed by the state for failing to consolidate. Also, without the Union 93 towns and Surry, Union 76 has little in the way of options for other AOS partners.

Webster said he’s hoping to speak with Department of Education representatives soon to discuss the penalty situation and to see what other choices the union might have.

“I’d like to see if there’s a way to eliminate those penalties for at least one year,” he said. “I want to explore the options for Brooklin, Sedgwick and the Island.”

Webster noted that the combined enrollment for the planned five-town AOS is close to the new 800-student limit that the state has approved. Brooklin, Sedgwick and Deer Isle-Stonington have a combined enrollment of about 600, he said, which is not even close to that level.

He said he doubted if the state would allow Union 76 simply to reorganize itself into an AOS, and while it might have been possible to “hopscotch down the coast” to join with other coastal towns, most, if not all, already have consolidation partners.

The five-town AOS is by no means a done deal. Hurvitt noted that the state has to grant its approval for the towns to begin that process, and the five different school committees have not yet given him authorization to seek that approval.

Hurvitt said he expected to schedule a Union 93 meeting in August to discuss the proposal.

If it moves forward, Hurvitt said a proposal for an AOS could be presented to voters in Surry, Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine and Penobscot in January. Although a January ballot draws fewer voters, Hurvitt said he did not anticipate the proposal would be controversial, since the five towns already were working together.

If the measure is approved in January and receives a nod from state, it would go into effect for the 2010-2011 school year.

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