Sidebar: The End of a Rivalry?
Varying Effects From School Consolidation
(from Maine Townsman, November 2010)
by Douglas Rooks
The issue largely has disappeared from the news, but municipal officials can testify that Maine’s school consolidation law is still having an impact on local government three years after its inception.
The 2007 law, enacted as part of the state budget, was controversial from the start. In 2009, the voters decisively rejected a referendum to repeal the law, but many communities have not yet completed a state-approved reorganization. As of Oct. 1, 82 municipal or regional school districts remained out of compliance with the law, although some are working on plans.
The state Department of Education (DOE) reports that 89 percent of students – or 169,055 – are covered by approved units, but 109,000 of those students are in districts unchanged by consolidation.
School units with more than 2,500 students, as well as those under state control (unorganized townships), islands and other geographically isolated communities, and certain “high performing” districts were exempted by the original law.
Many others have been granted exemptions below the 2,500 threshold, or because they are “doughnut holes” that could not make satisfactory arrangements with other municipalities. To date, the smallest “doughnut hole” community approved by DOE is Acton, with 400 students.
The exemptions in the law and numerous changes – the law was amended both in 2008 and 2009 – have resulted in considerable uncertainty and confusion.
As one might expect, responses to the law, and its ability to produce its goal of local administrative efficiency, vary considerably. Many changes that the law set in motion are still unfolding.
The Rockland-Thomaston area is a place where school consolidation discussions began well before passage of the state law. The Many Flags Project, which seeks to coordinate public high schools, vocational-technical education, community college programs and the University of Maine System, has captured imaginations in the Midcoast region.
The original idea embodied a single campus that would create a “K-20” educational system. That has been hard to pull together, but a new RSU board is proceeding with major changes in secondary schools.
Following a 2008 vote to merge SAD 5 (Rockland, South Thomaston and Owls Head) and SAD 50 (Thomaston, Cushing and St. George), the district applied for a new career education center and high school in competition with Sanford.
A dispute broke out over judging the competition – Sanford came out ahead in the first DOE assessment, but Rockland-Thomaston was the choice of a specially convened independent panel. That result was affirmed by the State Board of Education in October, though there is still no identified funding for the school.
Rockland Mayor Deborah O’Neill, a former state legislator, said the Many Flags concept was what got people excited.
“I still think that was the main reason people favored consolidation,” she said.
Nevertheless, the new RSU 13 school board, representing six municipalities with 2,200 students, is moving ahead with a reorganization of schools not required by the state law, which focuses primarily on administration.
Rockland Area High School will become the district’s only high school, while Georges Valley High School will be the new middle school in September 2011. A recent internet-based vote chose Oceanside as the new high school name, winning out over Midcoast Area, with Mariners as the new mascot.
O’Neil said the end of the old high school, built 50 years ago, has produced “a lot of sadness” among alumni, and that a truly new school is the best way to produce the educational results the area is expecting.
“We think Many Flags is the way to provide our kids with more, to encourage them to move on and go to college,” she said.
THE FIRST RSU
The Bath area also had a consolidation plan on the drawing board when the state decided to act.
Bath and four of the five towns in School Union 49 – Arrowsic, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich – created a regional district under a law passed just before state consolidation was approved. Georgetown voters rejected the plan.
The result, RSU 1, was the first new regional district formed in nearly 30 years. Its smooth inception was attended by strong support from municipal officials.
William Giroux, Bath’s city manager, did not have that post at the time of the vote but he was a signer of the original petition that resulted in a consolidation task force.
Giroux said the new district has fulfilled the hopes its organizers had.
“We’ve been able to keep the tax rate level for three years and we couldn’t have done that without the new RSU,” he said.
While cuts in state aid have prevented Bath from lowering its tax rate, he said, the savings projected in the original plan have been realized.
From an educational perspective, one of the most important features is reinforcing Morse High School as the common ground for the area’s students.
“The biggest issue in the other towns sending tuition students was having a say is how the school was run,” he said. “Now they have that.”
He noted that school budgets have been approved overwhelmingly since the RSU was formed.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks this hasn’t worked out” both for students and taxpayers, he said.
In Woolwich, town Administrator Lynette Eastman has a different perspective. She said that the transition from School Union 47 to the RSU 1 raised concerns among townspeople, and included a complicated transfer of property involved in a new K-8 school that had already been approved by the state.
She said the change to an RSU budget format simplified procedures at the town office, but at the cost of more detailed budget control. Most townspeople do not believe taxes have gone down as a result of consolidation, she said, and this year Woolwich saw an increase in the tax rate from $11.55 to $12.25 per thousand.
“The town cut $40,000 and the county cut $25,000, but the school budget was up,” Eastman said, while acknowledging that the loss of municipal revenue sharing and school aid were factors.
CHANGE IN DIRECTION
Before the consolidation law was enacted, Buckfield and its three-town SAD 39 had been forging links with the adjacent Oxford Hills Regional School District (SAD 17). Its students had long attended the vocational-technical program and the two SADs had begun sharing personnel, including a superintendent.
But when the consequences of the new law emerged, all that changed.
“Basically, there was no way we could equitably share costs,” said Buckfield Town Manager Glen Holmes. “Oxford Hills would have been picking up additional expenses and we couldn’t even arrange to make a payment later on.”
The law was amended in 2008 to allowing any cost-sharing formulas that were locally agreed upon but, by that time, SAD 39 had already responded to an invitation to join forces with SAD 43 (Rumford) and SAD 21 (Dixfield).
The resulting RSU 10, known as the Western Foothills School District, has more than 3,000 students and is comparable in size to the eight-town Oxford Hills district. But because it is so dispersed geographically, there is less opportunity for shared programs or consolidating schools, Holmes said.
The town is pleased with the results.
“We did realize significant savings” by combining three superintendent’s offices into one, in Dixfield, Holmes said. He has a good relationship with the new superintendent, Tom Ward.
“In many ways, it’s just like before when I could walk downstairs and talk with the superintendent. He’s really reached out to us and made the transition smooth.”
SECOND TRY IN WINTHROP
Winthrop is one of many towns that didn’t approve a reorganization plan on the first try. In a fairly close vote in 2008, voters rejected joining the towns of the Maranacook Community School District (Manchester, Readfield, Mount Vernon and Wayne), which instead reorganized into an RSU on their own.
The Maranacook tie had historical roots, since all its towns once sent students to Winthrop High School. However, Winthrop residents weren’t sure there would be advantages to a merger, said Town Manager Cornell Knight.
Instead, Winthrop began discussions with Fayette, the other town that rejected joining with Maranacook. Both Winthrop and Fayette approved an AOS, which maintains separate town school boards, last year. At just over 1,000 students, Western Kennebec County Schools fulfills the new minimum size, which was adjusted downward by legislation in 2009.
The reason for the new vote, Knight said, was simple: “People didn’t want to pay the penalty. Coming on top of the other state budget cuts, they felt we had to respond.”
Knight said there won’t be many changes with the new arrangement, although Winthrop and Fayette will share special education and curriculum services, as required. The former part-time Fayette superintendent is also working in the new district.
MORE WORK TO DO
Another new RSU where change so far has been moderate is in the Belfast area (SAD 34), which joined with SAD 56 in Searsport to form RSU 20, with 2,700 students.
Belfast Mayor Walter Ash said that since the SAD’s budget process was already separate from the city’s, there hasn’t been as much of an adjustment as in municipalities which had their own school departments.
“I was in favor of the theory of consolidation,” Ash, a former legislator, said. “People have had to give up some turf and that can be difficult.”
While combining bus routes was relatively simple, the new district is still debating what to do about separate maintenance facilities.
And looming on the horizon is a larger issue: When existing labor agreements expire, RSUs are required to negotiate a combined contract with teachers and support personnel.
So far, only RSU 1 in Bath has successfully concluded negotiations on such a contract, and teachers there worked for a year without a contract before an agreement was reached in September.
“There are quite a few differences in pay levels,” said Ash. “The big question people are wondering about is who’s going to have to pay.”
Ash has seen no evidence that the consolidated district won’t eventually come together. “I think it’s going to work,” he said.
DILEMMAS IN AROOSTOOK
Nowhere are the differences between the Sinclair Act of 1957, which authorized the original SADs – of which there were eventually 77 – and the 2007 consolidation law more apparent than in Aroostook County.
By far Maine’s largest county geographically, Aroostook took to the Sinclair Act with enthusiasm, forming 11 SADs, more than any other county. But the recent mandated consolidation has been a different story. To date, only one new RSU has been formed, though there are two AOS agreements among existing school districts and municipal departments.
The new regional district, RSU 39, is based in Caribou, and City Manager Steve Buck has mixed feelings about it. “It’s a sensitive issue for us,” he said.
The difficulties began almost as soon as the law was passed. Caribou, which had its own school department, took seriously the map of potential consolidations that DOE prepared, and attempted to make a plan with seven nearby towns, including another single-town SAD, Fort Fairfield.
“What we noticed right away was that Connor Township wasn’t on it, and we asked why,” he said.
The reason was that all unorganized townships with state schools were exempt from the law.
“That didn’t make sense to us,” Buck said. “It was another aspect of the law that seemed to lack equity.”
Caribou worked with the other towns on the required Reorganization Planning Committee, but progress was slow. Buck advocated for more frequent meetings but when the Legislature reconvened in 2008 – amid talk of amendments and possible repeal – things stopped altogether.
“In the end, we didn’t have enough time to make things right,” he said. “It was frustrating.”
Of other potential partners, New Sweden – which had just built a new school and feared losing control of it – stayed out. So did Westmanland, which also has a small school. In the end, only Stockholm, which already had closed its only school, and Limestone, which shared a superintendent with Caribou, decided to join.
RSU 39 enrolls 1,700 students, the majority of whom are from Caribou.
“We’re serious about our schools as economic development. We’ve always had good schools and we’ve kept to that commitment,” Buck said. “What the schools need, the schools get.”
There are significant changes to municipal operations as a result of consolidation.
For instance, school and city cash flows vary by season and used to complement each other. Now, the city must borrow more in tax anticipation.
Buck said it also bothered city councilors that, when Caribou moved ahead to comply with the law while other municipalities did not, the Legislature waived penalties for everyone for a year, and an additional year for districts that voted for consolidation but potential partners did not.
“That was not the intent of the legislation,” Buck said. The council wrote to the Governor’s office to register its objection but never received a reply.
EXEMPTION IN KITTERY
Kittery is one of many towns where consolidation planning produced no tangible results.
Of potential partners, York did not seem interested, according to Town Manager Jon Carter. SAD 35 (South Berwick and Eliot) had such a different cost structure that a merger didn’t seem feasible under the original rules.
So Kittery remains a municipal school department. It was one of the first to be given a “doughnut hole” exemption, with just over 1,000 students.
But the consolidation debate awakened keen interest among some residents about reducing school costs. Kittery has since closed the Frisbee School, one of two elementary schools. It is planned to become a recreation center.
And, the town took a non-binding vote on Nov. 2 to keep Traip Academy open as a high school. The results were 2,744 voting to keep Traip open and 1,007 voters voting to close it and tuition students to Marshwood High School in South Berwick.
While non-binding, the vote is expected to be influential in the continuing debate. A study committee found that, in operating costs, paying tuition for 276 students could save money compared to what’s needed to operate Traip Academy. The committee cautioned that there may be other costs to a tuition system, plus one-time expenses for the school closing and unemployment compensation for employees.
Carter said town government has responded to taxpayer concerns by consolidating administration with the school department. There is now a single business manager and other systems are being merged.
Even if Kittery were to close its high school and tuition students to Marshwood, Carter isn’t sure consolidation with SAD 35 would make sense.
“We’ve gone a long way to be more efficient among ourselves and we’d have to undo all that,” he said.
The ironies of the regionalization debate are not lost on this long-time town manager. Kittery is economically part of the greater Portsmouth area spanning the Piscataqua River. The town’s phone exchange is routed through New Hampshire, as is its mail delivery.
If Kittery residents think their per-pupil costs are high, he said, “They’re a lot higher across the river, in Portsmouth and Rye.”
Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Townsman, firstname.lastname@example.org
Most municipalities have long since completed negotiations on school consolidation, but not Jay and the towns of Livermore Falls and Livermore, which comprise SAD 36.
Two years ago, voters in all three towns decisively rejected a proposal to merge administration and create an RSU. Two years later, they are poised for another vote in January, with Jay’s superintendent predicting that this time, the RSU will be approved.
On its face, that could seem unlikely. The first proposal covered only school administration. The new plan, however, would consolidate two secondary schools, with the Livermore Falls Middle School closing and consolidating in Jay, and the high school to follow in 2012.
What has changed between 2008 and today? For Livermore Falls Town Manager Jim Chaousis, it’s the economy.
The closing of the century-old Otis Mill – most recently run by Wausau Paper and the original site for International Paper’s operations – eliminated a $34 million assessment from the tax rolls.
Chaousis also observed that the first vote was taken under serious time constraints: “There was a lot of confusion about execution and the state facilitator told us we weren’t supposed to discuss a lot of things people really cared about.”
For Ruth Cushman, the veteran town manager of Jay – and before that, Livermore Falls – the state penalties were a significant motivation.
“They weren’t going away and that had an effect on people’s thinking,” she said.
For Robert Wall, the new Jay superintendent, it was a focus on “minimizing the taxes spent on the school with an eye to making things more efficient.”
Both the Jay and Livermore Falls high schools have seen declining enrollments, with Jay falling to 248 students. Cushman said this has raised concerns about the ability of either school to offer a competitive curriculum.
“Most of the high schools in our area are much larger,” she said. “It’s been hard for us to keep up.”
While there’s some skepticism in the community, both school and municipal leaders say there should be sufficient space in the Jay high school and middle school to accommodate students from all three communities.
Then there are the inevitable questions about sports teams, particularly football.
“It’s interesting,” Marden observed. “We have community programs in sports for the area and kids grow up playing on the same teams. They’re used to it.”
Should the two schools merge, a football rivalry Chaousis that called “one of the top 10 in the state” would come to an end. But it hasn’t always been easy to keep the squads going. Some high schools this size don’t have varsity football teams.
Estimates of savings are still being developed. Chaousis said he can see at least $700,000 in savings, but neither manager said immediate budget issues are the main concern.
“We have to think about what programs we’ll be able to offer in 10 or 20 years,” Marden said. “We can’t afford to stand still, and we’ve been cutting back on programs and staff for years.”
Wall said that community attitudes have changed a lot in two years.
“This is no longer about the state telling us what to do. This is a plan the community has developed.”