Area school systems leave Lewiston at altar

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LEWISTON – It appears Lewiston is staying single after schools Superintendent Leon Levesque asked Auburn, Sabattus, Turner, Lisbon and other towns if they wanted to partner.

No other school systems were interested in consolidating with Lewiston, Levesque told the School Committee on Monday night.

Considering Lewiston’s large size, it’s not surprising that neighboring school districts don’t want to merge, Levesque said. Most districts are finding partners similar in size, he added.

So Levesque will submit a letter to Education Commissioner Susan Gendron explaining that Lewiston does not plan to consolidate with other districts.

By law all school units have to send letters of how they’re going to consolidate – or not – to Gendron by Aug. 31. She’s supposed to tentatively approve or reject the plans shortly after.

The goal of the new state school consolidation law is to shrink the number of school districts statewide from 290 to 80 to save taxpayer money. What Maine spends on per pupil administrative costs is out of whack compared to other states, Gov. John Baldacci has said.

Maine’s new consolidation law does not require Lewiston to join others since it has about 4,700 students, more than the state minimum of 2,500. In state recommendations of who should partner with who, the state recommended Lewiston stay single. It recommended Auburn partner with Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls.

While not merging, Lewiston is working closer with city hall and the Auburn School Department to save money by looking for efficiencies such as buying supplies and fuel together. Lewiston schools will continue that, Levesque said.

Even though Lewiston schools don’t have to merge, the law is calling for big changes.

Budget referendum

One is that all school budgets in Maine will have to be more transparent and easier to understand.

And after the School Committee and town or city council approves the school budget, it will have to be approved by voters in a public referendum. That referendum must be held 10 days after the council approves the budget. For Lewiston the referendum will likely be in June.

Voters will have to be shown the size of the proposed budget and where the money is going. If voters reject what officials have approved, the budget will have to be reworked and sent back again to referendum until voters approve school spending, Levesque explained.

Another change is state money for education.

Next year the state will continue to spend millions more on K-12 education, but it will start cutting back what it allows in certain areas: transportation, special education, buildings and central office or administration.

Every school district will get 5 percent less in those areas, and then will have to submit a plan to the Maine Department of Education on how it will make those cuts without impact teachers and classrooms.

“We haven’t figured that out yet,” Levesque said.

Schools districts do not know yet how much state money they’ll be receiving next year, so it’s hard to show how they’ll deal with cuts that they don’t know the size of, Levesque said.

In other business, the school committee approved:

• Lewiston band director Tim Ebersold’s recommendation to suspend marching band competition. The marching band has had fewer members and needs more before continuing competing. However the marching band will continue to perform at local games and parades.

• The hiring of English as a second language teacher Danielle Provost at the Farwell Elementary School. A special vote was necessary because she’s the daughter of school committee member Norm Provost. Public votes are required when a position involves a close relative of a school board member. Provost abstained from voting.

• A strategic plan for the next school year, which includes an updated “messenger system.” Now the high school has a system that calls parents when their student is absent. That system will be broadened to all schools, and updated, Levesque said. Once implemented it will be able to alert parents of emergencies through cell phone messages, e-mail as well as calling home.

Another change is that next year all Lewiston schools will have tighter security with single points of entry, as recommended by state police. Once the school day has begun, no one should be able to walk into a school without checking with the front desk.

Referring to Sun Journal stories in which reporters were sent out to test security in regional schools, Levesque said, “We’ll be ready for you guys.”

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