WHITEFIELD — Two mixups in Regional School Unit 12 have families scrambling to make arrangements for their students and district officials wondering how to pay for the solutions.
On the first day of school, students in Whitefield and Windsor were left waiting for buses that never arrived to take them to Cony High School. RSU 12 is still figuring out how to transport the students for the rest of the year.
Also, two families drove their seniors five hours to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone last month, only to find later that RSU 12 would not pay the $7,950 room-and-board fee as it had in the past.
Both problems apparently resulted from a lack of communication or crossed wires among former Superintendent Greg Potter, school board members, parents and, in the case of the busing, interim Superintendent Alan Hawkins and employees of the Augusta School Department.
At the school board meeting Thursday night, Whitefield board member Malinda Caron expressed frustration about the busing situation, which affects her daughter, Cony sophomore Emily Cote.
“What I’m upset about is why the ball was dropped,” Caron said, adding that Potter and Augusta school employees both appeared to be at fault. “I’m wondering what other balls have been dropped.”
The busing situation started in the spring, when Augusta Superintendent Cornelia Brown and Business Manager Karla Miller realized that Augusta had been providing free transportation to Whitefield and Windsor students, although they were not obligated to do so.
While Chelsea, another RSU 12 town, has a contract requiring Augusta to transport students from Chelsea School to Cony, busing for Windsor and Whitefield students was based on what Hawkins characterized as a “handshake agreement.”
Miller does not know how long Augusta has provided free busing for Whitefield and Windsor students. She estimates that it costs at least $8,000 per year in Augusta’s contract with First Student.
Brown and Miller decided in May to end busing for those students, and Miller said she notified either Potter or his assistant about it.
Potter, who left RSU 12 for the superintendent’s post at Newport-based RSU 19, said he does not recall any such communication.
“I don’t believe the office ever received anything like that,” he said Friday. “If there was discussion, it was related to the Chelsea contract running out after next year.”
Sometime after Hawkins took over as interim superintendent on July 1, Miller called the RSU 12 office again and talked to Hawkins about the need to notify parents.
“He told me that he spoke with someone at Cony and thought that Cony should send the letter; but again, it’s their students,” Miller said. “We don’t know which ones of their students are choosing to come to Augusta every year.”
Hawkins said he called Cony High School, and a woman in the office said they would distribute a letter to parents. He thought that was enough.
“I have learned, and I should have remembered, you shouldn’t assume anything,” Hawkins said.
Students in Whitefield and Windsor gathered at last year’s bus stops on the first day of school Aug. 29, but no buses arrived. Hawkins said he does not know how many of the students ever made it to school.
Since then, RSU 12’s one spare bus and a driver Hawkins pressed into service have been transporting about a half-dozen Whitefield students to and from school. Hawkins said he is looking for a more economical solution, such as a van. First Student told him they would charge $176 a day to bus the students.
This year 14 students from Whitefield, seven from Windsor and one from Somerville are attending Cony. There will be a meeting for parents at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Windsor School to discuss some alternatives, and Hawkins hopes to bring something to the school board in October.
Whitefield board member Joan Morin, who works with Augusta teachers and administrators in her day job for the Maine Education Association, said she would talk to Brown about the issue. Morin said her son, who is 30, attended Cony and was picked up by an Augusta bus.
“They’re getting all the tuition for these students, and they’ve always done it,” Morin said. “If Augusta wants our kids, that’s got to be part of the deal.”
Hawkins said the RSU 12 board’s Policy Committee needs to take a close look at transportation for students who do not attend the district’s high school in Wiscasset.
The board took action on the other problem that came up at Thursday’s meeting, authorizing the district to pay $7,950 room-and-board fees for two Whitefield students starting their senior year at MSSM, a competitive magnet school.
Whitefield had a practice of paying room and board for its MSSM students, and RSU 12 took over that practice. The district does not receive state subsidy to help pay that, unlike the situation of students who attend outside high schools such as Cony and Erskine Academy.
According to board Chairwoman Hilary Holm, a Whitefield representative, Potter told the parents last fall that RSU 12 no longer would pay for their students’ room and board, but he changed his mind after talking to the parents. However, the money was not included in the district budget for this year.
Potter said Friday that the issue did not arise as school officials prepared the budget, and he doesn’t know why it wasn’t included.
“I was pretty clear that that would be covered until and if that issue was brought to the board,” he said. “It was never refused or cut.”
Whitefield resident Carole Cifrino, the mother of one of the MSSM students, said she thought Potter was going to bring the issue to the board last year.
“And it wasn’t until we got our room-and-board bills for this year and turned them in to the (RSU 12) central office and kept calling and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ that we found out he hadn’t,” she said at the school board meeting.
Morin said RSU 12 should pay the bills for the students, who have attended MSSM since they were freshmen.
“I believe there are promises to be kept,” she said. “I also don’t believe in cutting people off without adequate notice, and I don’t believe they’ve had adequate notice. Whether that was our intent or not, Whitefield made a promise to these families. We don’t wait until the year’s started and then say, ‘Sorry,’ and pull the rug out from under them.”
Palermo representative Don Barrett disagreed.
“It’s not in the budget,” he said. “How do we pay for it when we have cut assistance to the students that attend our schools? We have cut assistance to whole classrooms by removing (education technicians).”
Other board members noted that the district pays to meet students’ needs even when they’re unexpected. Somerville representative Chris Johnson used the example of a student moving into the district and deciding to attend Erskine, and Caron said it may be decided that a student needs more special education services.
The board approved the payment by a large margin. Barrett voted no along with James Bailey of Alna and Jerry Bailey, of Wiscasset. Barbara Skehan, of Chelsea, abstained.
Hawkins said he strongly supported paying for room and board for the students but added that the board needs to talk about its policy for the future. He also said he doesn’t know where the money will come from.
The busing and MSSM room and board are not the only large, unexpected expenses thus far. RSU 12 also has had to place a special-needs student outside the district, at a cost of $55,000.
Hawkins said he is dealing with problems and expenses as well as he can and will try to find savings elsewhere in the budget.
“As an interim superintendent, I’m just dealing with each problem as it comes along and going from there,” he said.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645