FAIRFIELD — The Maine School Administrative District 49 board of directors voted Thursday night to join the Kennebec Alliance Regional Service Center.

SAD 49, which includes Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield, is the sixth district in the Waterville-Skowhegan area to join the center.

Regional School Unit 18, based in Oakland and including Belgrade, China, Rome and Sidney, and SAD 54, based in Skowhegan and including Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock and Smithfield, were the first districts to join. Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro followed shortly after.

Interim Superintendent Roberta Hersom mapped out the specifics to the board and said if SAD 49 were to join the service center, the district could garner about $182,000 in additional funds from the state. Hersom emphasized, however, that amount is subject to change.

Hersom said financial incentives and recent changes to state laws make service centers more appealing.

“(There is) a pretty strong incentive to join. One of the things that the state has done is make it easier for schools to join,” Hersom said. “(It’s) very easy to withdraw if it doesn’t provide us with efficiencies we want to see. Certain restrictions have been lifted, and it’s a sizable amount of money.”

Other board members agreed with Hersom’s observations, and the board voted unanimously to join the service center.

Superintendents Eric Haley, of Waterville Public Schools, and Peter Thiboutot, of Winslow Public Schools, shared similar opinions when their school boards voted to join last month.

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

Added Haley: “We already provide services like the center, like payroll, accounts payable, maintenance, transportation. 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.”

For many districts, the appeal to join service centers is fueled by changes to state laws in recent years. Under the administration of Gov. John Baldacci in 2009, strict requirements discouraged districts from forming service centers. Some of these restrictions included a set timeline and exact figures for how many students and staff members would be involved and affected.

In 2017, Gov. Paul LePage incentivized regional service centers by awarding a larger subsidy to districts that joined them and signed legislation to reduce and eventually cut funding for system administration to districts that do not join a service center by July 1, 2020.

The financial penalties for not joining a service center were eliminated when a law was passed earlier this year under Gov. Janet Mills’ administration. The new legislation disconnected system administration funding from service center membership. The system administration allocation rate from 2017-18 was also reinstated under this law.

The system administration allocation will be $135 per pupil for 2020-21, compared to $47 per pupil this year for districts that were not part of a regional service center.

SAD 49’s vote Thursday night will be finalized if the board approves the meeting minutes at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 3.

The district must then submit the official meeting minutes to the state to affirm its intention to join the service center.

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