June 24, 2018
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Blue Hill school consolidation effort a ‘dead horse’

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

BLUE HILL, Maine — Once again, school consolidation efforts on the Blue Hill Peninsula have ended.

“I’m concentrating on the day-to-day educational issues,” Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt said Wednesday. “At this point, it’s [consolidation] a dead horse.”

The latest stab at forming an alternative organizational structure ended with the recent vote of the Blue Hill School Committee earlier this month. The unanimous 5-0 vote opposed filing a notice of intent with the Maine Department of Education to form a five-town AOS. The school system would have included the four Union 93 towns — Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine and Penobscot — and the town of Surry.

Although school committees in the other towns had voted in favor of submitting the notice of intent — the first step in forming an AOS — they had also agreed that if one or more of the potential partners were opposed, the effort would not move forward, according to Hurvitt.

The decision ends for now any effort to consolidate schools in the area. The five towns were part of an initial Regional School Unit proposal, which also included the schools in Union 76, Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick.

That proposal was rejected in 2009 by voters in most of the towns, although residents in Surry and Castine favored the plan. All of the towns that opposed consolidation plans were hit this year with penalties that reduced the education subsidy they receive from the state. Castine and Surry were held harmless this year, but could face penalties next year.

Earlier this year, in light of relaxed state rules on forming an AOS, Hurvitt and Union 76 Superintendent Robert Webster resurrected the idea of the nine-town consolidation proposal as a way to eliminate those state penalties. When that effort fell apart this summer, a five-town AOS was considered.

Blue Hill School Committee Chairman Ben Wooten, however, raised familiar concerns about the AOS requirement that all members of the district have consistent contracts. Although Hurvitt said that “consistent” did not necessarily mean “the same,” Wooten said that developing consistent contracts would cost the district more than it would be penalized.

“The last time we looked at this in detail — we didn’t have new numbers this time — it would have cost us more than $100,000, closer to $200,000 a year in order to renegotiate all the contracts for different benefits, starting salaries and steps,” he said. “We knew we had a major obligation, and we had no good numbers on how much it would cost to fulfill that obligation.”

Wooten also said there was no guarantee that, given the state’s economic situation, the state would, in fact, be in a position to reinstate the lost subsidy to the towns, even if they did consolidate. And, he said, committee members were reluctant to become part of a larger organization and lose some of the local control over their school.

Wooten has suggested that it makes more sense to approach the Department of Education seeking to make Surry a part of Union 93. Although he acknowledged that state law does not allow for any expansion of a school union, he said the law does not forbid it either.

Surry was left without an administrative partner after the original RSU plan was defeated, and has contracted with Union 93 since then for administrative services.

The union, Wooten said, should look at ways to have Surry join it before considering an AOS.

It is unlikely the district will be able to make its case to the education department. DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Wednesday the school restructuring law does not allow any expansion of a school union.

“You can lose numbers,” he said, “but you can’t add numbers.”

Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the district will do anything before the November elections. Although Connerty-Marin said proposals to change the law declined after the repeal effort failed, both Hurvitt and Wooten said that a new governor and a new Legislature might bring new legislation that could change the consolidation landscape.

“Who knows what could happen next year?” Hurvitt said. “There are still a lot of ‘ifs’ surrounding this.”

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