FAIRFIELD — While two significant storms have hit the region in just a few short days and dumped inches of snow, the town isn’t plowing at the Lawrence High School complex, as it has done historically.

As it turns out, it’s because the town is not allowed to do that legally. However, some school board members think the town manager has not been working with the district to provide the plowing.

Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said plowing at the high school complex has been an issue on the Town Council’s agenda for a number of meetings, dating back to October. Historically the town has plowed the back and front parking lots for the school, she said, as well as two access roads for School Administrative District 49. However, it has come to the town’s attention that without a collaborative agreement with the district, the town is not allowed to spend taxpayer dollars on something not owned by the municipality.

Superintendent of Schools Dean Baker confirmed that the town had not provided plowing services after the two recent winter storms, but that historically the town had done so.

Under Maine state law on education, parties agreeing to a collaborative agreement share the responsibility for and cost of the delivery of certain administrative, instructional and non-instructional functions. Administrative, instructional and non-instructional functions include, but are not limited to, system administration, school administration, special education, transportation and buses and facilities maintenance.

Part of the problem between the town and the district is ownership. Though the SAD 49 schools are in the towns of Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield, technically none of the towns can claim ownership of the buildings, facilities or land that the schools occupy. Those all belong to the school district. Even in the event one of the schools were to close, for instance in a consolidation effort that has been proposed in the past, the town where that school stands would not have a say in what happens to the land or buildings there.

Flewelling said an insurance liability question is also in play regarding town public works employees plowing school district areas and not town property.

Baker said Flewelling had informed him earlier this year of the insurance liability concerns she had, and the district had been trying to work through that. “That can’t be done unless there’s a signed agreement with the town in which the town requires liability coverage,” Baker said.

LETS MAKE A DEAL

Flewelling said she met with Baker back in October, and the Town Council approved a collaborative agreement on Oct. 25 for one year of snow plowing, which would have gotten the district through the winter. Flewelling said a one-year agreement would allow for the plowing services to be provided this winter, and the town and the school board could review how well the services worked.

The agreement was sent to the school board, which tabled it. Board members went to the Nov. 8 council meeting, asking councilors to consider a two-year contract. The council didn’t vote to change the agreement and has not met on the subject since, but it has a workshop scheduled for its Wednesday meeting. Because the council voted for an initial one-year agreement, nothing could be signed.

School board Chairman Shelley Rudnicki said Flewelling was obstructing the snow plowing, and that she essentially had blocked a plan for a two-year agreement. Rudnicki said the board wanted a two-year agreement in order to assess budget and finances in March 2019 to work on a good-faith extension for both parties.

Rudnicki said Flewelling didn’t like the plan and came up with her own, which Rudnicki said would have ended at the end of June 2018, at which point the district could have been left high and dry.

“But that wasn’t the impression that we got from the Town Council when we met with them,” Rudnicki said. “It was (Flewelling) putting in her own thing.”

Rudnicki said the school board didn’t want to sign the one-year deal, and it was not her or other board members’ understanding that the deal with the council would have been revisited for negotiations once it ended.

“We figured two years give us a good chance to see what it actually costs,” Rudnicki said. “The idea is to do what’s best for the students, the district and the town.”

A two-year agreement was not unreasonable, she added, and as a taxpayer, she was “ticked” at having to pay associated lawyer fees over this.

Because of the storms, the district had to hire an outside company to help with snow removal. Rudnicki said the district will look into issuing a request for proposals for snow plowing if necessary. However, she warned that ultimately would cost taxpayers more and could result in having to spend money that should be going toward educational purposes.

“A basic memorandum of understanding was all that was necessary so they could be on our liability insurance,” Rudnicki said. “The town manager decided to blow this up into the nightmare that this has turned into.”

The town of Fairfield buys fuel and diesel for plowing from the district. Rudnicki said the district buys enough to sell at slightly above-market costs to the town, which Flewelling said they do for convenience. Rudnicki said in years past, the district absorbed the cost of mowing the Police Athletic League fields to offset plowing costs, which coupled with the fuel purchase does help the town save money.

Flewelling said it’s always difficult to gauge how much plowing costs will be, since winter storms and snowfall totals tend to be difficult to predict. She said the Public Works Department’s initial estimates account for plowing at the end of storms, which usually means the employees are getting overtime, plus the costs associated with salt and sand. A typical 3-inch storm would cost $270 to plow at the school, while a 6-inch storm would be $530.

Flewelling said the basic assumption is that for eight hours of work, with five pieces of equipment, the town spends $3,500 a storm. However, that varies depending on the significance of the storm, she said.

“We’re looking for one year to cover them for this winter, then discuss how to make sure it’s cost-effective going forward,” Flewelling said.

RESOLUTION AHEAD?

Flewelling said the town’s portion of the annual SAD 49 budget is 43 percent, so she envisioned an agreement in which Fairfield pays 43 percent of plowing costs at the schools in Clinton, Albion and Benton and pays 100 percent for plowing at the high school complex.

“So what we’d be looking at doing, I envision looking at what services the schools would need, and schools would be billed for those services,” Flewelling said. “That of course would get included in their annual budget” with Fairfield paying its 43 percent share, and the remaining towns paying their 57 percent share.

Currently the town is not helping to plow the high school complex, Flewelling said, but it has been in communication with the School Department so there wouldn’t be an assumption the town would come to plow.

“We’ll go from there,” Flewelling said.

Baker said he didn’t want to classify the nature of the discussions between the town and the school board, since he believed it was “open to perspective.” But he did say the initial reaction he got from Flewelling was to have a one-year agreement which would stop, but that the board wanted a longer-term agreement.

Both the town and the school district have been working with their respective attorneys, and Baker said it’s his understanding that all legal issues have been cleared up and there are no obstacles to entering into an agreement.

He said if the council does not vote for the plan, the district will have to look elsewhere for plowing services.

“If the council decides that the town will not plow, then the schools will have to absorb that work and the expense that goes with it,” Baker said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: ColinOEllis

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