Voters from Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow will decide in Tuesday referendum whether Alternative Organizational Structure 92 will be dissolved and three independent school systems will form in its stead.

Nine years after forming the AOS, school officials are citing a weak governance structure staffed with too few key personnel as key factors that prompted initiating a campaign to dissolve the district.

Eric Haley, the district’s superintendent of schools, has described the AOS system as untenable. Administrative directors, including himself, carry an incredibly heavy workload by overseeing three community school systems and are spread too thin and are burning out, he said.

“With the AOS 92 structure being such that each of the three municipalities has their own school budget and contracts that means our administration has to do three times the work and attend three times the meetings as administrators in other smaller municipal or RSU districts where they only have one budget and one set of contracts,” Joel Selwood, chair of the Winslow School Board, said in an email Saturday.

Additionally, Haley worries that the AOS relies too heavily on a limited number of people and he is afraid of what would happen if those people, many of them now reaching retirement age, left the AOS.

“No one in their right mind would have structured school governance in this way,” Haley said at a recent public hearing on the AOS vote. “There’s a small number of major players, and if they are pulled out, AOS 92 would collapse.”

The decision to form an AOS in the first place was a reaction to a threat from the state Department of Education. At the time, in 2009, the state said school systems of fewer than 2,500 students that did not consolidate would face hefty financial penalties, Haley said. The threat of penalty was great enough that the three communities consolidated as an AOS. And although administrators now believe the system to be poorly conceived, the reason they chose to consolidate as an AOS as opposed to a school administrative district or regional school unity was that the AOS structure afforded each community some independence by maintaining its own school board — a point that had been important to the communities at the time.

However, the threat of penalty from the state never came to pass; no school system in the state had been punished for failing to consolidate.

Similarly to 2009, the LePage administration began pushing for more regionalization of services by offering some financial incentives for administrative costs for districts who reorganized as regional service centers.

It was believed initially that by restructuring as a service center, which would handle many of the administrative tasks of a superintendent’s office, the communities could receive up to $246 per student in state funding. However, the state has withdrawn its offer and would give schools only $46 per student to form service centers, said Haley. Although the communities began the process of reorganizing in this way, the state has yet to provide sufficient information on how these centers would work for that money to be enough for the communities to go through with restructuring, Haley continued. Additionally, the only way for any community to legally exit a service center agreement would be contingent upon that community being able to prove that the other communities’ financials would not be adversely affected by the departure.

If the district is dissolved, the three communities would still lean on one another by contracting services, such as transportation and maintenance, through an interlocal agreement.

The greatest benefit to terminating the district and reclaiming local control of their schools, officials have argued at recent public hearings, would be freeing up administrators, such as the superintendent, to spend more time on the ground at schools working with students in the classrooms and serving as an educational leader for teachers and principals.

With the way things currently run, Haley, by virtue of overseeing eight schools in three communities, spends most of his time working on administrative tasks, creating budgets, negotiating contracts, and meeting with boards, councils and committees.

While there are different costs and benefits for each community if the district is dissolved, if the AOS remains in tact, it will lose Haley as its superintendent. Haley has said in the past that he plans to retire if the district is not dissolved because of the difficult workload. His departure would likely reflect a rise in cost to fund the superintendent’s office as Haley receives health care coverage through his retirement package, and the AOS would have to pay those costs for Haley’s successor.

Additionally, the $1.89 million AOS budget residents approved in December will be void if the district is dissolved.

A majority of only one municipality’s voters favor the proposal would dissolve the district. The dissolution would then go into effect on June 30.

The communities each recently held public hearings going into detail on how the dissolution would effect its schools

VASSALBORO

Vassalboro is the only community slated to save money if the AOS is dissolved. It is scheduled to pay a $340,670 assessment to the AOS for the 2018-19 school year, but if it is dissolved, the school would save $45,650 by contracting some services and hiring a part-time superintendent, according to a financial analysis conducted by the district.

A superintendent working at the school one day per week would cost $25,000; and contracted services, such as payroll, maintenance, transportation, technology, special services and the salary of a finance and curriculum director would cost the community about $270,020.

Additionally, after using the cost-sharing formula to split up the $278,419 balance in AOS 92 undesignated fund between the three communities, Vassalboro would receive $51,841 to use in order to alleviate pressure on taxpayers.

Voting in Vassalboro is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Vassalboro Town Office, according to Town Manager Mary Sabins.

WATERVILLE

The estimated annual cost of leaving the AOS system for Waterville comes out to about $42,178.

The extra cost will come from contracting some services, which Waterville currently gets from the AOS, with Winslow. But for that $42,000, Waterville will no longer have to share Haley as a superintendent and will retain personnel for technology, transportation and maintenance, finances, payroll, and accounts payable. Winslow will provide services from its curriculum director and instructional specialist and will provide other special services.

Waterville will receive revenue from both Winslow and Vassalboro by providing services to the two towns.

Waterville will likely be receiving a one-time payment of $133,760 from the AOS’s undesignated fund if the district is dissolved, which would make the dissolution financially neutral for three years. In the interim, Haley said the board will evaluate what they can do to make it financially neutral beyond that point. One option is opening themselves up to provide contracted services, such as payroll, to other schools and business.

The polls will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Waterville Junior High School, at 100 West River Road. City Clerk Patti Dubois said the voters’ entrance will be on the side of the building where buses park.

WINSLOW

Leaving the AOS will have the biggest impact in terms of cost on Winslow at $97,000 due to the number of personnel it will need to hire to fill its superintendent’s office.

Winslow would have to hire its own superintendent, curriculum director, finance director, receptionist, instructional specialist and an assistant director of special services. The board already has offered the superintendent position with a salary and benefits package of $156,737 to Peter Thibotout, who currently serves as the assistant superintendent of AOS 92.

Joel Selwood, the school board’s chairman, said at their hearing that dissolving the AOS would allow the superintendent to spend more time with students and teachers, which is something Haley isn’t able to do regularly for all three communities.

The polls will be open in Winslow from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Office.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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