Education Schools chief to explain changes

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Who: Maine Department of Education

What: Forums on school consolidation law

Where and when:

Mt. Blue High School, 7 p.m. today

Lewiston Middle School, 7 p.m. Thursday

Read about the law:

www.maine.gov/education/supportingschools/index.html

To look at mergers suggested by the state:

www.maine.gov/education/supportingschools/rsus051807unit.pdf

Education Schools chief to explain changes
State’s plan does more than suggest district mergers

LEWISTON – Maine’s new school consolidation law will mean big changes for everyone, even school systems that are not merging, Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said Tuesday.

One change for Lewiston and Auburn will be the way school budgets have to be approved.

After a budget is approved by the school board, city councilors or selectmen, it will also have to be approved by local voters, Gendron said.

To explain that and other aspects of the new law and to answer questions, Gendron will host a public meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lewiston Middle School. In Farmington, Gendron’s representative and former school superintendent Norm Higgins will be at Mt. Blue High School at 7 tonight.

The new law dissolves existing school unions and school administrative districts, and mandates the creation of new school units.

Towns with less than 2,500 students will have to partner with other towns to form new unions. Exceptions will be made for island schools or parts of Maine considered geographically isolated.

Auburn has about 3,500 K-12 students, Lewiston 4,700. Neither city has to merge with anyone. But smaller schools in surrounding areas must.

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Recommended mergers

The new law does not mandate specific mergers, but the Maine Department of Education’s Web page includes suggestions:

• Auburn could merge with Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot, which now make up School Union 29. Auburn is in talks with only Poland about merging, said acting Superintendent Tom Morrill.

• Lewiston could stand alone.

• SAD 9 in the Farmington area could merge with the Rangeley school union and SAD 58 in the Kingfield area.

Farmington has about 2,400 students, said Superintendent Michael Cormier, who added that he and officials in the other two school systems are talking about joining forces. If that happens, the new district would be geographically huge.

“It would go from the Canadian border to Jay,” Cormier said. That proposed union would have about 3,500 students.

School districts have to submit their consolidation plans to the state by Aug. 31. They have to be implemented by July 1, 2008. Districts can refuse to consolidate, but they will face penalties such as less state money for education.

Students not moved

Gendron said Tuesday she wanted to assure parents that their children would continue to attend their schools. The law “does not change where children go to school.”

The school consolidation law was passed in June by state legislators. It mandates that by 2008 the number of Maine school units shrink from 290 to 80. Some districts now have only a few hundred students.

The law is a far cry from what Gov. John Baldacci proposed last January: that Maine go from 290 school districts to 26, and from 152 superintendents to 26.

Gendron said the new law will achieve the same goals. “We should have a system that is more sustainable cost-wise,” she said. State lawmakers are banking on a $66 million savings next year: $33 million from the state budget and $33 million in local savings.

Earlier this year, Baldacci and Gendron visited Lewiston for a public meeting on Baldacci’s initial consolidation plan. They were met by an audience of unhappy – if not hostile – school board members and educators. Only a few voiced support for savings.

In this second statewide round of public meetings, more of the same unhappy educators are showing up in some places, but not all, Gendron said.

“Some I would still characterize as frustrated and not in support,” Gendron said. In other places, educators “have rolled up their sleeves and understand what they have to do.”

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