June 24, 2018
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Knox County schools, vocational school at odds over cost sharing

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Tensions between the vocational school that serves the Knox County region and the administrations of local school districts that send students there came to a head on Wednesday night as district leaders sought 11th hour cuts in the vocational school budget.

But the tension concerning the vocational school is not limited to outside boards. Members of the vocational panel also have been divided, mostly over whether they are meant to represent their sending schools or the vocational students.

The Region 8 Vocational Center — which operates the Mid-Coast School of Technology — serves the Five-Town Community School District that operates Camden Hills Regional High School, Regional School Unit 13 which operates Oceanside High Schools, and Regional School Unit 40 which operates Medomak Valley High School, and high schools on Vinalhaven, North Haven and Islesboro.

The formula used to divide up costs among the schools has been a source of friction for at least the past 20 years, particularly with the Camden-area school district. The districts share in the costs based on the number of juniors and seniors in the high schools, not on how many attend the vocational school. Camden school officials have argued for years that it pays too high a share of the vocational costs for the number of students it sends.

On Wednesday, the superintendents of the three mainland school districts that are part of Region 8 sent a letter to Mid-Coast School of Technology Executive Director Beth Fisher asking for cuts in her budget. The letter was sent several hours before the final vote by the vocational board on the budget.

Fisher said she had not received any comments on the budget from the superintendents prior to that day.

In the letter, the superintendents stated that they are all faced with many staff cuts, budget cuts and declining funding prospects. Superintendents Lew Collins of RSU 13, Elaine Nutter of the Five-Town CSD, and Susan Pratt of RSU 40 wrote that this has been a stressful time for them as they have been forced to make decisions that affect programs in their districts.

“As we review the budget for Region 8, it does not appear you have faced the same situation and we believe this will not be well received by our constituents,” the joint letter from the superintendents stated.

They argued that full-time school-to-career coordinators at their three high schools were excessive and called for her to reduce those positions to half time at each of the three schools. The letter did not indicate how much that action would save.

“We certainly don’t want to micromanage your budget and perhaps you have other ideas of cuts that have minimal impact on student programming, however, we feel that some concession will foster a mutual respect between the local units and the board for Region 8,” they stated.

“We did not send this letter to your board but instead would ask you to bring this as your idea. We wanted you to have that opportunity and hope this will serve all of us as we struggle to get our budgets passed and gain respect for you following suit,” the letter concludes.

Collins said Thursday that the superintendents were not criticizing Fisher nor the programs at the vocational school.

“I think they do a wonderful job. I think all our districts do a wonderful job but we are faced with making difficult decisions,” he said.

While the board was made aware at the meeting of the superintendents’ proposal, Fisher did not recommend it for a vote.

Fisher said Thursday that there has been a turnover of superintendents and school board members in the sending districts and they are unfamiliar with what the vocational school does and with state laws regarding career and technical education.

In the end, the vocational board voted 10-5 Wednesday evening to approve the 2013-2014 vocational school budget of $2,848,864. The budget was up nearly 2 percent ($48,560) from the budget approved last year.

Voting against the budget were three of the four CSD representatives on the board and two of the four RSU 40 representatives.

RSU 13 will pay the largest share of the budget. The Rockland area district will be assessed $953,803, a $16,024 increase. The Five-Town CSD will be assessed $934,427, an increase of $38,508 for 2013-2014. RSU 40 will be charged $753,792, a decrease of $9,249.

The vocational school serves 320 students at the Rockland facility and also has cooperative programs and serves students on the island high schools. Seventy of the students are from the Five-Town CSD.

One of the disagreements among the sending schools and the vocational district has been who should the vocational board members represent — their districts or the vocational school.

Edmund Hartt serves as both chairman of the Lincolnville School Committee and represents his town on the Five-Town CSD Board. Hartt had also served for nearly a decade on the Region 8 Board, representing the Five-Town CSD until last summer.

Hartt and another CSD representative were replaced on the board by their school board without warning, he said Thursday. He said he was never given a reason and did not question it since it was the board’s right to appoint members as it saw fit.

The Lincolnville man said, however, he believes it was due to the tensions between those who want all students to be prepared for college and those who favor more hands on learning as offered at the vocational school.

“There are people who want the school to have a few shop classes and consider that to be adequate career and technical education. But that doesn’t turn out people who can get jobs,” Hartt said.

He said that the Camden school board members who oppose the amount of money paid by the district to Region 8 forget that at the annual district budget meeting in the Five-Town District, the article which pays for the assessment to the vocational school receives more votes than any other article from residents.

The CSD should be sending more students to the vocational school, he maintained.

CSD board member Tori Manzi, who voted against the budget, said the board replaced Hartt because there was a philosophical difference between him and the CSD board. She said the board wanted representatives at Region 8 who have the interests of the CSD but that Hartt’s position was that his priority as a vocational board member was that school.

Manzi acknowledged that a few members of both the CSD and RSU 40 met last summer to discuss the vocational school but failed to publicize the meeting. She said that was a mistake.

Manzi said the Wednesday night meeting was her first on the vocational board, serving as an alternate member, but that she was frustrated that there is a faction on the board that fails to question Fisher.

Fisher said Thursday that the board’s code of ethics states it is not the responsibility of the board member to operate the school but to see that it is well operated. In addition, when a board member from a school district is appointed to the vocational board, that member’s responsibility is to serve all the students in Region 8 not just from that person’s district, she said.

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