School Reorganization Update

(from Maine Townsman, February 2009)
By Jeff Austin and Kate Dufour, Legislative Advocates, MMA

The referendum phase of the mandatory school consolidation process is over for all proposals except one (Acton & Wells-Ogunquit). The statewide results are mixed. Approximately 90 school units with a little over 55,000 students will undergo some form of reorganization. Two more units with 1,800 students in York County will vote in March on the lone remaining reorganization proposal.

Almost 50 school units, with just over 100,000 students were exempt from the reorganization process due to the size, performance, island-status or tribal status of the school unit.

Finally, approximately 144 units, having nearly 37,000 students either rejected consolidation or refused to participate in the process.

The summary of the results are shown in the table to the right.

The primary source for this data is the Department of Education’s website.

School Reoganization Chart

School Unions that voted yes

Also note, there was some disagreement between the Department and the Maine School Management Association regarding how best to characterize some votes in areas of a split vote that ultimately produced a new RSU. For example, in the Caribou region, only 3 of 8 school units voted in favor of consolidation. However, the 3 “yes” units were sufficient to form a new RSU under the consolidation law. So, for purposes of calculating an overall tally of the votes, the table lists the Caribou region as voting yes (similar to the Department). However, for purposes of recording the data in the table, the units are apportioned according to the votes in each unit. In this case, three are counted in the “voting yes” category and five are counted in the “voting no” category.

As the map on the front cover indicates,exemptions were most prevalent in southern Maine, rejections were most prevalent in Northern Maine and central Maine produced a mix of results.
[Click Here to View Map]

It should be noted that the map only indicates whether a new, reorganized school unit was formed in a particular municipality. The map does not reflect whether a particular municipality or school district voted for or against the plan. The table at the end of the article identifies the districts that voted in favor of a plan that was rejected overall and that will not produce reorganizations (and therefore appears in red on the map).

The Commissioner of the Department of Education has indicated that the Department will either introduce or support any legislation that would provide a one-year reprieve for these school units from the penalties that would otherwise be imposed on districts that are failing to reorganize.

Obviously, the districts that voted in favor of reorganization vary greatly in terms of the degree to which the new Regional School Union (RSU) system will be different than the existing system. An example of a “minimal change” RSU will be the Maranacook RSU which is currently the Maranacook CSD/School Union 42 in the municipalities of Wayne, Readfield, Manchester and Mount Vernon.

The state tabulates the current CSD arrangement as five separate school administrative units: the CSD (which operates a middle school/high school for the four municipalities) and four municipal systems for each of the four elementary schools. However, the four municipal systems don’t have any “administration” in the sense that was at issue in the broader reorganization debate. That is, there are not five different school superintendents each with his/her own staff or office. The single superintendent position for these five units has been shared by the five interconnected schools systems for over two decades. The only direct administration in the elementary schools is provided by the principals. (In fact, Mt. Vernon and Wayne share an elementary principal as well.) So, the new system will be almost indistinguishable from the old system. Another example of this kind of minimal change is the CSD (now RSU) for the municipalities of Litchfield, Sabbatus and Wales.

By comparison, RSU 10 will be combining three existing School Administrative Districts (MSADs 21, 43 and 39) and the municipal district of Hanover. The new RSU will cover 12 municipalities whereas the current SADs have only four, four and three municipalities respectively. There are separate superintendents for each of the three SADs. Finally the new enrollment for the RSU will be over 3,200 students, one of the state’s largest.

It is difficult to stereotype either those who voted in favor of reorganization or those who voted against it. There are simply too many variables that go into the decision to be able to select one or two as determinative. That said, the pattern of support versus opposition does appear to be inversely related to how close the unit was to Augusta.

Next Steps

There are two primary next steps. For those units that are reorganizing into RSUs, the task is to become operational by July 1 of this year. This involves electing school boards, hiring a superintendent, developing a budget and otherwise redesigning the new school system.

For all others, the primary issue is the apportionment of penalties. The statute presently imposes a penalty on those units which do not organize. The financial penalty has two components. The “system administration” allocation in the school’s EPS model is reduced by 50%. In addition, the so-called “mill rate expectation” that the school must levy in order to leverage full state subsidy is increased by 2%. The funds generated by this penalty are to be used to subsidize the costs of all other units, both those that are forming RSUs and those that are exempt. As indicated above, the Department may seek legislation to give “Yes” units in non-reorganizing areas a reprieve.

The Maine Municipal Association has filed legislation to “flip” the penalty system into a “reward” system such that only those units which are reorganizing will receive a benefit. In other words, the exempt school units will not benefit at the expense of the penalized units; instead the exempt units and the penalized units will collectively contribute to rewarding the newly created RSUs.