FARMINGTON – Local leaders expressed their unease Wednesday at Mt. Blue High School over the feasibility of the state’s push to consolidate school districts statewide.
David Connerty-Marin, communications director for the state Department of Education, fielded a range of questions from regional school and municipal officials after presenting a 45-minute Powerpoint presentation.
He had hoped to keep debate to a minimum and address the consolidation process exclusively, but questions often touched on the merits of the state law requiring that districts merge. “This evening is not a debate about the law,” he said. “The law is the law. This is how we go about implementing it.”
A key point of contention was getting an exemption from consolidating. The law says that should a school district have at least three schools that qualify as high performing (based on state standards), and have administrative costs less that 4 percent of its budget, then it may qualify for an exemption. The law also says school districts may have no fewer than 1,200 students.
SAD 58 Superintendent Quentin Clark asked Connerty-Marin which districts might qualify for an exemption, and Connerty-Marin listed six, including SAD 58.
Recognizing that higher-performing schools often are found in the wealthier parts of the state, Clark asked Connerty-Marin, “Did the Legislature really intend for this exemption to be just for upscale coastal communities?”
“I can’t speak for the Legislature,” Connerty-Marin said.
“I could poll the (people) here,” Clark said.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Connerty-Marin responded.
State Rep. Tom Saviello of Wilton, co-author of a portion of the new law regarding exemptions, took issue with Connerty-Marin. “You are interpreting the law,” he said, adding, “1,200 does not factor into (the exemptions). I suggest you check the legislation. I know, I wrote it.”
Philip Richardson, superintendent of the Rangeley School Department, was concerned about school choice. The law assures that students who currently have school choice will continue to (some Rangeley-area communities currently send students to school in New Hampshire). Richardson asked if future students will be guaranteed the same school choices current students have. Connerty-Marin said they would, which elicited a laugh from the audience.
“You hesitated a little on that,” Richardson said.
SAD 9 Superintendent Michael Cormier and other administrators had questions about transportation and the massive geographic size of larger districts that would be formed, known as Regional School Units. Cormier cited the $250,000 SAD 9 spends annually on bussing alone, adding, “I cannot even begin to imagine what the transportation costs would be for an RSU from the Canadian border to Jay, Maine.”
The state is providing facilitators to assist school districts on the path to consolidation. “As of yesterday we’ve had 19 people go through orientation or training,” said Connerty-Marin. “We will help you find the right match.”
School districts have until Aug. 31 to file a consolidation plan with the state. A plan would highlight prospective partners or propose an alternate option. The full reorganization plan is due Dec. 1. Schools that are not granted exemptions and choose not to consolidate will face with stiff penalties, including the possibility of a 50 percent cut in state funding.
Wednesday’s meeting was one of 26 occurring statewide. The next scheduled public forums are today in Lewiston and Skowhegan.
Administrators and residents alike can consult the Department of Education Web site, www.maine.gov/education, for more consolidation information.