Moving Forward With School Reorganization

(from Maine Townsman, October 2007)
by Liz Chapman, Freelance Writer


Most school officials and community leaders are working diligently to meet the looming deadline to file school consolidation plans with the state, but even those communities with a history of sharing with their neighbors don’t expect to cross the finish line on time.

In fact, state officials think the majority of schools, even those working in good faith to implement the new school consolidation law, will miss the December 1 deadline for filing actual merger plans.

The majority of schools met the August deadline to find partners, filing letters of intent with the state Department of Education and beginning to organize a Regional Planning Committee to develop a plan.

Many are still floundering to find partners, however, and at least one citizen group is circulating petitions to ask the Legislature to reverse its action.

Others, meanwhile, have active RPCs that are feeling tremendous stress to completely restructure their long-time local school systems without complete and adequate information on how a consolidated regional school district would affect students academically and individual communities financially.

“I am impressed and humbled by the dedication and professionalism of each (RPC) member when we meet to address the complex process of consolidating our schools,” said Malcolm Hardy, who is leading the RPC for six Winthrop-area towns, most of which have been sharing resources since 2000.

“We can do it right,” Hardy told the Townsman, “but our enemy will be the deadlines, which is where the (state) could step in and help.”

But a spokesman for the state Department of Education (DOE) said the state does not intend to give any ground on the December 1 deadline, but at the same time recognizes that most plans will be incomplete for any number of reasons.

­ David Connerty-Marin said the DOE will continue working hard with RPCs statewide to help them complete an entire plan, which calls for laying out, among other substantial issues, how the new configured school district would be governed and funded.

“Most school and community members, regardless of where they stand on the law, or certain provisions of the law, have been doing very good work” toward finding consolidation partners and developing a reorganizational plan, Connerty-Marin said in a recent interview.

“There have been exceptions,” he added, “but they have been very few and far between.”

Eating an elephant

Talking about consolidating operations to save money and build efficiencies is old news to the CSD 10/School Union 42 towns of Readfield, Manchester, Mount Vernon and Wayne.

For the past six years, CSD 10/Union 42 has had a working relationship with each of the towns in the school district, as well as with nearby Winthrop, which operates its own school department with about 865 students. Meanwhile, CSD 10 (known as Maranacook) also has built a strong bond with the small town of Fayette and its 160 school-aged children.

The loose partnership started with monthly meetings to talk about common issues and new ways to streamline their operations and save money as a group. The effort evolved into a long-term program that has allowed all of the parties to build the kind of trust that will be needed to implement the sweeping school reform now under way.

“We already had a great deal of trust among our towns and schools when we had to sit down to consider consolidation for the school side,” said CSD 10/Union 42 Superintendent Richard Abramson. “So it was a natural” for the (school system) to partner with Fayette and Winthrop under a reorganized school district.

The consolidated efforts between the CSD/School Union and Fayette have been extraordinary and include sharing teachers, buses, mechanics, training programs, food services and special education administration, among others school-based efforts.

­ The blended services of the two school systems have been done slowly over the six years, and only in areas where joining together made economical and academic sense.

The CSD is comprised of school board members from each town and oversees the operation of the middle and high schools. The entire school system (CSD and School Union) has a total student population of 1,395.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Abramson said. “We are successful because the towns and the school have worked together for six years.”

‘Tight time line’

Despite the impressive history and track record between and among the Winthrop-Readfield area towns, Abramson and others don’t expect to make the December 1 deadline for submitting a completed reorganization plan to the DOE.

They also will not be ready to send a plan to voters in all of the towns by January 15, a date encouraged by the state, according to the superintendent.

School officials from throughout Maine have complained about how complex and confusing the process has been – and will continue to be. Even the terms of the new law are confusing to the people working with it.

For example, the new School Administrative Units (SAU) will include only mergers between a municipal school department and an existing regional district. Regional School Units, meanwhile, can only be formed by one or more existing school administrative units or two or more municipal school units.

The goal of the new law is to reduce Maine’s existing 290 school units to about 80. The new units, initially proposed as a way to cut school administrative costs, must be operational by July 1, 2009. The state will withhold some amount of state funding to schools that do not meet the 2009 deadline.

Once approved, the merger plans must be ratified by voters between January 15 and November 4, 2008. The state is urging as early a local referendum vote as possible to give the newly-configured districts time to formulate curricula and staffing and elect new school boards by July 2009.

­ Each of the new school units must include at least 2,500 students (with a few exceptions)

Meanwhile, multiple bills to repeal or otherwise significantly change the new school law have been submitted to the Legislature’s Executive Council for consideration in the new session beginning in January.

Opposition from lawmakers is growing in tandem with concerned citizens and planning committees that question whether such a fundamental and major reorganization to the state’s education system will save enough money to justify it; or whether it will improve the quality of education in Maine.

But most school officials, such as those in CSD 10/Union 42, don’t plan to stop their efforts on the chance the law might be changed.

“Our greatest challenge ahead will be to look at all the data, as it comes out, and build (a regional unit) that will, ultimately, given time, improve the quality of educational programming for our students ... as well as keeping in mind the tremendous tax burden our citizens in each town have to share,” said Hardy, the Winthrop-area RPC chairman.

Pushing ahead

Harvey Hayden of Farmington, a retired 40-year educator and current facilitator for the CSD10/Union 42-Winthrop-Fayette RPC, agreed with Abramson that the state’s deadline for finding workable – and willing – partners and then developing a plan by December 1 is not only aggressive but in many cases unrealistic.

Hayden said the RPC has only gathered one-half to two-thirds of the information needed to make decisions about wholesale structural changes to the various school districts. The former SAD 9 assistant superintendent, who has advocated school consolidation efforts for 15 years, said that while the committee is working as fast as possible important parts of the plan will not be fully developed in time.

Both Hayden and Abramson said they expect to file at least a partial plan and then continue until it’s completed.

­ “There’s absolutely no question we have a tremendous advantage at this stage,” Hayden said of the longstanding friendship among the Winthrop-area towns and schools. “... The conversations around the table are very positive and varied. Because this group has been meeting all along, no one feels left out of the picture.”

Connerty-Marin of the DOE said state officials are expecting the same from most all schools. He said the law gives schools and communities flexibility in meeting the deadlines. For example, while the state would like the plans to be ready for voter approval by mid-January, Connerty-Marin conceded “probably most” of the referendums will not be held until spring.

The law gives towns until November 2008 to get local and state approval for their plans. Schools must be making a transition to their new systems by July 2009 or face financial penalties from the state.

New school boards also would need to be elected.

School officials also have a second major undertaking to complete in the coming months – getting voter approval for school budgets by referendum, or secret balloting.

While some of the state’s SADs already send their annual school budgets to referendum, many still hold a regional budget meeting similar to a town meeting format to get voter approval.

Even municipal school departments will be required to get budget approval at the polls.