Some voters will face an unfamiliar school district question on Tuesday’s primary ballot – about whether their local school system should join a regional service center.

The centers are part of a new state initiative that provides additional state education funds to districts that band together to create regional centers, which will provide certain services to their member districts.

The Department of Education initiative reflects Gov. Paul LePage’s persistent efforts to get local school districts to consolidate administration and services in order to save taxpayers’ money. But some school officials are skeptical.

For a district to belong to one of the centers, which only exist on paper for now, it must get local voter approval under the year-old law authorizing the initiative. In southern Maine, voters in Lewiston, Auburn, Biddeford and Sanford are among those voting on local regional centers.

Other districts are either seeking approval at town meetings or putting it on the ballot in November.

School officials at each proposed center have come up with their own plan for what services to provide.

At the Greater Sebago Education Alliance, which includes Portland, Brunswick and SAD 6 in Buxton, for example, possible joint services include purchasing of food, professional development, substitute teacher recruiting and intake processing of immigrant, refugee or other students who are learning English.

Other centers might provide special education services or consolidate transportation, maintenance or human resources.

So far, 12 regional service centers, each with multiple districts involved, have made it past the initial benchmarks set by the state Department of Education. But voters must approve the district’s participation before the DOE releases any funds.

Seven towns and four regional school districts are involved in the Greater Sebago Education Alliance. At some point, all the communities representing those schools will have to vote at town meeting or the ballot box to join the alliance. If a town votes against joining, the service center will continue with the remaining members – but the town dropping out will lose some state education funds.

State education officials have described the process as an incentive to regionalize and save money, although many school district officials think of it as a penalty that reduces state aid for those who decline to participate.

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said “we have no idea” if the Greater Sebago Education Alliance will ultimately save the district money, but he’s happy to expand on their already existing collaborative efforts.

“To have us not lose subsidy, we’re going to participate in something that is low risk and low cost to us, to see if we can leverage the collaboration to our benefit,” he said. “We don’t see this form of regionalization saving us substantial amounts of money.”

In Lewiston, school officials note that if voters reject the proposal, the district will lose about $200,000 in state funding.

The state will pay half the salary of a regional center’s executive director and 100 percent of certain other costs, such as accounting or payroll.

DOE spokeswoman Rachel Paling said the department was “very encouraged” to have 12 centers moving forward, and that if they become operational would serve more than half the students in the state.

“This the most flexible, voluntary regionalization initiative any administration has ever provided and we believe that there is a way for all districts in the state to participate,” Paling said.

The idea of the service centers began two years ago, with an executive order from Gov. Paul LePage directing the education department to earmark excess funds for school districts working on consolidation of services or efficiency measures. Last July, a state law was passed formalizing the program.

The extra funding is calculated through the amount of state funding for districts’ administrative costs. The state used to reimburse districts $235 per student for administrative costs, but that figure has been sharply reduced. The state budget deal reached last July cut administrative funding to $135 per student for the fiscal year ending July 1. It will be lowered to $92 per student in 2018-19, and $47 per student in 2019-20.

However, districts that join regional service centers can recoup $46 per student in 2018-19 and $94 per student in 2019-20.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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