Stephen Fitzpatrick resigned as superintendent/principal for SAD 70 during a school board meeting in Hodgdon in March. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine – Families who reside in one community but send their children to a different school system may not be allowed to do so next school year.

Superintendents for two Aroostook County school districts – RSU 29 in Houlton and SAD 70 in Hodgdon – have seen an increase in the number of requests for “Superintendents’ Agreements” by parents.

In general, a student attends school in the district where they live. But sometimes there are cases where it may be necessary, or in the student’s best interest, to attend classes in a different district. These exceptions to the rule are known as Superintendents’ Agreements. And  unlike in previous years in Houlton and Hodgdon, superintendents are now denying some of those requests.

Under Maine law, a student is eligible to attend schools in the school administrative unit where their parents reside, where they reside when they reach age 18, or where they reside if they become an emancipated minor.

“Essentially it is a request by a parent to go from their home district to another district,” RSU 29 Superintendent Richard Lyons said. “It’s a simple form that has to be filled out and is sent to both superintendents to be approved or disapproved.”

The two superintendents may approve the transfer, provided they both find it is in a student’s best interest and the student’s parent or guardian permits the transfer. The agreements are reviewed annually on a case-by-case basis.

“These agreements have been very common here [in southern Aroostook County],” SAD 70 Superintendent Stephen Fitzpatrick said. “Parents in Maine do not automatically have a choice for which district their child attends.”

This school year, RSU 29 has 125 students coming into the district via superintendent agreements and has 30 who attend school in a neighboring district, according to Lyons. Fitzpatrick, however, said thinks the number of students going to RSU 29 who should be in SAD 70 was closer to 90.

Lyons said it is common to receive a request from a parent who teaches in RSU 29 or works in the Houlton area, and it would be convenient for them to have their child attend classes in Houlton.

“The key question in my mind is ‘What is in the best interest of the student?’” Lyons said. “What is not a factor is the convenience or preference of the parents. Those are not appropriate factors to consider. It’s what is in the best interest of the student academically.”

It is that gray area of “best interest” that has some parents questioning why some requests are denied.

Sarah Smith of Ludlow is a parent whose child has attended classes at Houlton Elementary School for the past three years on a Superintendents’ Agreement, but is now being denied. Smith said one reason they chose to live in Ludlow was that they knew others who had had the agreements for years, and there was a precedent.

She was stunned when her request was denied by SAD 70.

“It really tears your heart out,” Smith said. “On the heels of a pandemic, why this year? We have seen the emotional toll on students and families. To force children to switch schools after spending their entire academic career in another school is irresponsible and in no possible way in the child’s best interest.”

Smith added what is more puzzling is that families are being denied agreements despite having solid academic reasons.  

“Parents recognize that switching schools will have a detrimental effect on the social and emotional health of their children, which in turn can also impede academic progress,” she said. “Even in the younger grades, continuity in education is essential for establishing a solid foundation for learning.”

If an agreement is approved one year, it won’t necessarily be approved the following year. If a request is denied by either superintendent, a parent must then petition the commissioner of the Department of Education, who will review the application and render a decision.

If the commissioner denies the request, a parent can appeal to the full state Board of Education. The state board has up to 45 days to either approve or deny the transfer, and its decision is final and binding.

Lyons said they already have one case that will be heard by the full board next week in Augusta.

Many of the requests being denied are originating from the SAD 70 school district, with parents wishing to send their children to RSU 29. Fitzpatrick said he did not have a total figure of the number of requests he has received this month.

Lyons said the number of requests has “accelerated exponentially,” while Fitzpatrick estimated there have been well over 100 requests received already in just the second week of May, with more expected.

Requests normally start trickling in throughout May, but final decisions sometimes are not made until after the school year.

For purposes of the state’s school subsidy formula, a student who is transferred under these agreements is considered a resident of the school administrative unit to which transferred.  

If the number of students seeking to come into SAD 70 was closer to the number wishing to go elsewhere, Fitzpatrick said he would be less inclined to reject so many requests.

“The imbalance is something my board has asked me to scrutinize,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s one thing when there exists somewhat of a balance. Then there is no fiduciary impact, but when there is a significant imbalance it affects our ability to offer programs to students and competitiveness for salaries. I am trying to do my due diligence for our district so this problem doesn’t go further.”