AUGUSTA — Three years have passed since the first regional school units formed in response to Maine’s consolidation law.

While some new school districts have worked together with little conflict, in several others time has either failed to mollify concerns that accompanied the formation of the districts or created new tensions that are driving communities to seek a way out.

Sixteen municipalities have taken the first official step toward withdrawing from regional school units that began forming in 2009. In many others, residents are circulating petitions to trigger the initial vote or just starting to explore their options.

The reasons are nearly universal. Critics say they haven’t seen the financial benefits of school consolidation, and they miss having local control over budgets, curriculum decisions and buildings.

Some say the effort to force consolidation through financial penalties was ill-advised and that such school units just won’t work, at least in some communities.

“I think the feeling was that the whole concept of an RSU was shoved down our throats, and it didn’t digest well,” said Ray Bates, chairman of the Windsor Board of Selectmen. The town is starting to explore leaving eight-town RSU 12. “It didn’t set well with people, and now that we’ve seen it in action for a while, we’re even less thrilled with it.”

The municipalities that have approved petitions to withdraw from their school districts — one of the first steps in a lengthy and complicated process — are spread across the state, from Arundel in York County to Ludlow in Aroostook County.

Some school units are facing clusters of potential withdrawals.

Ellsworth-based RSU 24 could lose three of its 12 municipalities, and Belfast-based RSU 20 could lose six of nine, according to the Maine Department of Education and published reports.

“Divorces,” as the Maine Department of Education refers to withdrawals in some of its documents, could completely dismantle the three-municipality RSU 26, where Glenburn and Veazie both want to separate from Orono and each other.

Westport Island and Wiscasset voted last week to form committees to negotiate exits from RSU 12.

Also in central Maine, Monmouth voted last week to negotiate a withdrawal from Hallowell-based RSU 2. Richmond residents have discussed leaving RSU 2 but have taken little action on the matter, and conversations in Hallowell are turning to whether other options might be better for the city.

Some China residents have organized a meeting for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the China Baptist Church to talk about whether the town should leave five-town Oakland-based RSU 18.

Exit strategy

Leaving a regional school unit starts with a withdrawal petition, which voters must approve on a secret ballot. The petition authorizes forming a negotiating committee and funding it.

None of the committees in central Maine have been appointed.

Municipal officials and the regional school unit appoint members of the committee to hammer out all the details of the separation, and the resulting agreement goes to the commissioner of education and then to voters at a second referendum.

A law passed in the last session of the Legislature lowered the threshold for approving the withdrawal agreement to a simple majority, from the previous two-thirds majority, which goes back into effect in 2015.

The same process has been in place since the creation of school administrative units as part of a round of consolidation in the 1940s.

In the last year, two municipalities have divorced school districts formed before 2009. Portage Lake left Ashland-based RSU 32 and Starks left Madison-based RSU 59 to join Farmington-based RSU 9.

In regional school units formed since the 2007 consolidation law, municipalities must wait 30 months before gathering signatures for a petition to withdraw. Because the earliest of those districts started operations on July 1, 2009, many cities and towns first became eligible on Jan. 1.

“We’re getting a lot of them now because it’s the three-year mark for all these new ones,” Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said. “After the initial wave, it’ll probably start to look a lot more like it always has, which is one or two every year.”

A repeal of the financial penalties for non-compliance with the 2007 law also may be contributing. Maine reduced the state subsidies for 59 school districts in the fiscal year that ends June 30, which is also the end of the penalty.

Money-saver?

Maine’s school consolidation was intended to provide both financial and educational benefits, and superintendents and state officials say it has in many places.

The Department of Education estimated in 2010 a reduction in the number of school districts had produced annual savings of $36 million for the state and $30 million for local taxpayers.

It can be difficult to evaluate the effect on individual communities because of factors like the infusion of federal stimulus money or the reduction in state support for education. And no one knows what would have happened if school districts had not consolidated.

“When the budget goes up by 2 percent a year for three years, they don’t see that as any savings, but it’s impossible to know because everything changes — enrollment changes, valuation changes,” Connerty-Marin said.

Judy Hotham, a China resident who served on the town school committee several years ago, said someone would have to show her how RSU 18 has saved China money, because it doesn’t seem to her that it has.

In both Westport Island and Wiscasset, critics complain that they are paying an outsize share of the RSU 12 budget. A proposal to change the district’s cost-sharing formula in a way that would benefit both towns did not receive a school board vote.

The proposal, however, is what has triggered Windsor selectmen to examine the possibility of withdrawing, because it would increase the town’s costs by about 30 percent.

Another proposal to cap a town’s per-pupil contribution to the RSU 12 budget at 150 percent of the district average failed a vote of the full school board. Westport Island pays more than twice the district average, and Wiscasset has the second-highest per-pupil cost.

RSU 12 Superintendent Greg Potter said it costs more to educate Wiscasset students than the town pays, and the town would have to spend a lot more if it were not in the RSU.

Local control

Beyond dollars and cents, some communities in regional school units feel they have lost ownership of their schools.

“We have someone else telling us what we’re going to have on our lunch menu, and what we’re going to have for programs in school, and who can use the gymnasium and who can’t,” said Hotham, who helped organize the withdrawal information session in China.

Bates said the Windsor selectmen hated signing over ownership of their town’s school building to RSU 12, but they felt they had no choice because of the consolidation mandate and the financial penalty that backed it up.

“When you have a to give up a building to an entity that just exists on paper, it’s kind of like tearing the heart out of town,” Bates said.

A decision by the RSU 2 school board to cut elementary school foreign language and a half-time nursing position for Hall-Dale schools was a budgetary matter, but Hallowell City Councilor Ed Cervone said it reflects educational priorities.

“There seems to be a disagreement on curriculum,” Cervone said. “In my opinion, in order for an RSU to work and function as it is expected to, districtwide we need to be at least on the same page as far as what curriculum is, what is necessary and what is considered an add-on.

“It became clear that per that specific foreign language program, it was not a shared view across the RSU,” he added.

The Hallowell City Council voted to make a gift to RSU 2 to maintain the foreign language programs, which were dropped during recent budget-cutting, and Farmingdale residents will vote on whether to contribute as well at today’s annual Town Meeting.

Cervone said that Hallowell officials and residents need to explore the city’s options for school district structure and evaluate the costs and benefits of staying in RSU 2, especially considering Monmouth’s potential exit.

“They’re a key part of the RSU, and so I think it’s in Hallowell’s best interests to explore what the range of options are, including staying in the RSU, but I’m not advocating for any specific action right now,” Cervone said.

The topic may be discussed at the next Hallowell City Council meeting on July 9.

RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said in addition to saving money for its five municipalities, RSU 2 has improved education through collaboration.

“I think I’ve seen tremendous growth in each of our communities over the last year,” Hammonds said. “Not just because of what the RSU has done but because they’ve been able to gather and talk about what they’re doing and learn from each other.”

Potter voiced similar concerns about the possibility of towns leaving RSU 12.

“Educationally, I think the school committee, the administrative team, the folks who are working hard every day out here would love to have the same schools and towns in our relationship,” Potter said. “We work well together, we’ve got a great team, we do great work, we have a good initiative going in Schools for Excellence. I would be sad, but it’s going to be a local decision.”

Alternative choice

Although municipalities that leave their regional school units aren’t required to partner with anyone else afterward, residents in China, Monmouth and Windsor have said they might want to join alternative organizational structures, which are known as AOS.

While regional school units replaced school administrative districts, an AOS is similar to the school unions that existed before the 2007 consolidation law: it allows each municipality to elect its own school board and maintain its own school budget, while sharing a superintendent and other administrative expenses.

It also has an AOS school board, and it is responsible for administering transportation and special education. The school districts within an AOS share a curriculum and a collective bargaining agreement for teachers, but municipal school boards still control their own budgets and buildings.

Bates said he doesn’t know much about how an AOS works, but a school union structure seemed to work for Windsor. Two towns that neighbor Windsor — Vassalboro and Jefferson — are in separate AOS systems.

Some RSU 2 critics in Monmouth want the town to join its neighbor Winthrop in AOS 97, which also includes Fayette.

Connerty-Marin said many regional school units are succeeding in raising student achievement, and it will be up to local communities to decide what will be best for their students.

“Some will argue that it’s in a small school that is run by the town school board,” Connerty-Marin said. “There’s individual attention and there’s small class sizes. But there’s also not the same types of opportunities that there are when a larger group works together.”


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