For decades, to reduce costs, school districts based in Waterville, Winslow, Vassalboro, Oakland, Fairfield and Skowhegan have shared certain services — professional development, payroll, purchasing of products ranging from custodial supplies to bread and milk and so on — according to area superintendents. But now, each district could see a substantial bump in its annual state subsidy as it opts to join the newly created Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center, which formalizes the inter-district relationship with the state.

“We have done a lot of this anyway, but it didn’t meet the letter of the law to be called a service center,” explained

Carl Gartley, superintendent of Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18, who applied to form the center and is currently its unofficial spokesperson. “(The state) made it much more palatable — easier to get into; less restrictive,” he said.

RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley applied to form the center. The Oakland-based district gains $100,000 by joining. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

RSU 18 also includes Belgrade, China, Rome and Sidney.

So far, in the greater Waterville-Skowhegan area, all but School Administrative District 49 — which serves Fairfield, Albion, Benton and Clinton — have signed on to the arrangement. The move is expected to bring RSU 18 and School Administrative District 54 — which includes Skowhegan, Canaan, Mercer, Smithfield, Cornville and Norridgewock — about $100,000 each in additional funds from the state next year, according to Gartley and SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry. Waterville expects approximately $120,000, Winslow is looking at roughly $60,000 and Vassalboro hopes to see around $33,000. 

SAD 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry. The Skowhegan-based district gains $100,000 by joining the center.  Morning Sentinel file photo

Using the $27.12 million budget figure sent to referendum by residents Thursday night, SAD 49 would see an extra $105,000 from the state next year if it votes to be a part of the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center.  

Gartley said RSU 18 already saves thousands of dollars by collaborating without the formalized center — savings that will continue to be realized. But a confluence of state laws coming into effect next summer made it the logical choice to band together now as a recognized regional service center, area superintendents noted.

Under the administration of former Gov. John Baldacci in 2009, districts were discouraged from creating formal service center partnerships because of strict requirements. Applicants needed to specify the duration of the relationship — without a plan for districts to transfer or leave the arrangement — and which school units would participate in which services as well as who exactly would carry them out and how many students and staff would be affected by each.

“The spirit of that law was good,” Gartley said. “It was to encourage districts to collaborate and try to save taxpayers money.”

But it didn’t always pan out that way.

Later, in 2017, former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration incentivized by-the-book regionalization by allocating a larger subsidy to those districts that had joined together as a service center and passed a law to reduce — and eventually cut — a line of funding if a district didn’t make the transition by July 1, 2020. The line of funding being whittled down was for system administration. Also under LePage’s administration, the state relaxed its rules for forming and joining a regional service center, effective July 1, 2020. These changes largely favored districts outlining processes — for joining and leaving the center, governing it, budgeting for it, handling a budget failure — over hard and fast figures.

Kelli Deveaux, communications director for the Department of Education, confirmed that there is no longer a financial penalty for districts that do not join a regional service center before the next school year starts. A law passed earlier this year, under Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, disconnected system administration funding from service center membership. It also reinstated the system administration allocation for all districts to the rate it was in 2017-2018.

Winslow Superintendent Peter Thiboutot. Winslow gains $60,000 in state subsidy by joining the service center.  Michael G. Seamans

Before, it was onerous to get in (to a regional service center) and onerous to get out,” Winslow School Board Chair Joel Selwood said ahead of voting to join the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center. “Now, (the state is) encouraging people to join rather than discouraging people by making it so onerous. There is a financial incentive to jump through the hoops that wasn’t there before.”

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense not to participate,” Winslow Superintendent Peter Thiboutot added. “If you read through the rules, things have been relaxed in such a way that it makes it inviting to (join.)”

Waterville superintendent Eric Haley agreed.

Waterville Superintendent Eric Haley. Waterville schools gain $120,000 by joining the center.

“We already provide services like the center, like payroll, accounts payable, maintenance, transportation …” Haley said. “There’s no risk in joining because we already provide services … and we can vote to get in and out unlike the vote to form the Alternative Organizational Structure, which was for three years … I think this is all great news and I think things look good for us.”

The system administration line of funding that was slated to be cut next summer for the districts that did not join a regional service center was “intended to ensure sufficient funding for the overall oversight of school districts,” according to a 2016 analysis of the category by Amy Johnson of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

“It includes costs for district-wide staff such as Superintendents, human resources personnel, business managers, and associated support staff,” Johnson wrote. “System Administration also incorporates Board of Education costs. It does not include costs for direct administration of schools or programs.”

Next year, the system administration allocation for all districts will be $135 per pupil, Deveaux confirmed. That figure had dipped as low as $47 per pupil in 2019-2020 for districts that were not part of regional service centers.

There are currently nine regional service centers operating across the state, according to Deb Lajoie, a regional specialist in the Department of Education’s School Finance and Operations Office. They include 62 of Maine’s 275-plus districts. In 2020-2021, Lajoie noted, there will be 11 regional service centers — including the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center — shared by 76 districts. Lajoie said that she did not believe the Department of Education collected data on how many regional service centers existed when the stricter rules were in place under former Gov. Baldacci.

The funds schools are rewarded with for participating in a regional service center will be “completely flexible,” Gartley noted, meaning that the money can be used to subsidize any area of a school budget, though Lajoie said the funds are “for a portion of the (centers’) operations.” The amount each district receives is based on the number of students and the district’s state share percentage. For the current fiscal year, each district gets $94 per student, multiplied by its state share percentage, which has a floor of 30% and ceiling of 70%, according to the Department of Education’s website.

Roberta Hersom, interim superintendent of SAD 49 in Fairfield. Joining the center, SAD 49 would receive $105,000. Contributed photo

Voters in RSU 18’s five towns as well as those in SAD 54’s six towns authorized the two districts to create a regional service center earlier this summerWaterville, Winslow and Vassalboro school boards voted to join in separate meetings last week. Gartley said he expects SAD 49 to join as well, though Superintendent Roberta Hersom said the issue is not currently on a school board agenda.

Once the regional service center already exists, it becomes easier for municipal districts to join,” Gartley said. “So that’s why we did it in the order that we did.”

Area school boards have until Nov. 30 of this year to decide whether or not to be a part of the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center.

“(Whether or not SAD 49 will join) will be determined by the Board once the Board has the opportunity to discuss and consider,” Hersom wrote in an email to the Morning Sentinel.

If SAD 49 joins, the center will consist of all of the same districts that are currently partnered as the Kennebec Alliance, but do not meet the requirements to be a service center. 

The participating school districts will select one of the superintendents to serve as the executive director and one of the districts to serve as the fiscal agent of the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center after it becomes operational on July 1, 2020. Gartley said no decision has been made about what to do about the current Kennebec Alliance, though it will likely be dissolved and replaced by the service center that shares its name. 

According to state law, the services eligible to be shared through regional service centers include: “special education programs and administration; gifted and talented programs and administration; alternative education programs and administration; shared educational programs or staff; educational programs such as summer school, extended school year, tutoring, advanced placement and other programs that serve students and improve student achievement; substitute teachers and staff augmentation; technology and technology support; staff training and professional development; regional school leadership academies; shared support services programs; shared extracurricular or cocurricular programs; accounting, payroll, financial management services and procurement; reporting functions; food service planning and purchasing; superintendent services; transportation, transportation routing and vehicle maintenance; and energy management and facilities maintenance.”

The Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center’s member districts will see the anticipated subsidy boost as early as February, when the state releases its education subsidy printouts, or ED279s.

Morning Sentinel staff writer Molly Shelly contributed reporting.


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