DEXTER, Maine — An alternative organizational structure that allows some local control over the operation of schools may be a better fit for residents of Harmony and SAD 46 and will spare them from hefty penalties, officials say.

Both Harmony and SAD 46 had joined SAD 4 and the town of Willimantic in a proposed regional school unit, but in January residents in all four units rejected that reorganizational plan, leaving all to face state penalties. When that occurred, SAD 46 directors went back to the table with Harmony officials, who together proposed an AOS that was approved last month by the Department of Education.

That plan will be presented to residents during public hearings at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 16, at Dexter Regional High School and Harmony Elementary School. Referendums to vote on the plan will be held May 5 in Dexter, Exeter, Garland, Ripley and Harmony.

“An AOS seems to be a little less constraining for everybody,” SAD 46 Superintendent Kevin Jordan said Monday. “By voting against consolidation, you’re essentially voting a tax increase to your local taxpayers.” SAD 46 and Harmony face penalties of about $60,000 and $21,000, respectively.

“Obviously, that was a concern for us,” Jordan said. If the proposed AOS is approved by residents, the plan will begin July 1, which would allow both to avoid the penalties, he said.

The proposed plan would allow each unit to retain ownership of its buildings and facilities, and it would provide a “more measurable level of local control,” Jordan said.

Under the plan, SAD 46 and Harmony also would individually retain their school boards, budgets, debts and teacher contracts. An AOS board consisting of SAD 46 and Harmony residents would govern the administration of the central office, transportation and special education. Harmony would retain school choice.

“This is Harmony’s opportunity to really, educationally, stay alive,” Mike Tracy, principal of the Harmony school, said Monday. “I’m for this initiative and I really believe it will help the students and help the school stay open.”

Jordan said the AOS option, which was not available in the original passage of the reorganization law, was approved in spring 2008 long after SADs 4, 46, Harmony and Willimantic had started their discussion. He said at that point it didn’t seem prudent to switch the conversation to another alternative. “Where we have had a long-standing relationship with Harmony we thought it was natural to pursue some conversation with them,” he said.

SAD 46 and Harmony together do not have the required minimum enrollment of 1,200 students, but they do qualify for an exception because the Exeter and Harmony schools are rural small schools, according to Jordan. Combined, the units have about 1,130 students, he said.