JAY — As a vote to merge the two school systems of Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls looms, school officials say the most important objective is high-quality education.
Voters will go to the polls Tuesday, Jan. 25, to decide whether to merge the Jay School Department and Regional School Unit 36 (Livermore Falls and Livermore)
“It is our hope that consolidation can provide more options and resources to face continued challenges," Jay Education Association President Lynn Ouellette said.
She said supporters of consolidation are hopeful the new district's school board would do all it could to restore program cuts.
“The voters in our communities need to look to the future and to envision what they want to provide for the students of their towns,” Ouellette said.
Both systems face ongoing funding losses, declining student populations and local taxpayers who say they are already overburdened by school costs.
Belt-tightening in both systems has resulted in a steady erosion in programing and opportunity, say Jay Superintendent Robert Wall and RSU Superintendent Susan Pratt.
They said they would follow the will of the voters, but they believe consolidating the systems seems to be the best answer for education.
Both said going it alone would result in continuing losses in programs.
That issue has some students weighing in on the side of merging.
“Although everyone has their own personal reason for wanting to stay separate, the consolidation is obligatory in order to continue educating students locally," Jay Student Council President Naomi Gettle wrote. "Jay is barely hanging on and it makes complete sense to merge schools and become a stronger school. Let the biases and rivalry go because just imagine how good we can be in sports if we pool our talents together."
She wrote that during her four years at Jay High School, "the variety of classes has decreased tremendously. I find a big problem with the fact that students are taking classes at surrounding schools, which proves that Jay cannot provide for the needs of its students. I feel bad for the freshmen this year as they hardly have any elective classes.”
A merger would also create the possibility of adding new sports programs, she said.
Livermore Elementary School students in grades three through five recently voted 155-85 in favor of consolidation, Superintendent Pratt said.
Preliminary estimates of projected state subsidy show that both systems would lose revenue for 2011-12: RSU 36 would lose $284,000 and Jay $268,300. In addition, if they don’t comply with state law and consolidate, they face an additional reduction in overall subsidy from state penalties, jointly to the tune of $400,000.
Both superintendents agree that putting together budgets has been difficult the past several years.
Almost all school systems in Maine are reducing staff to become more efficient, Wall said. When you have a small school system, it is much harder to find efficiencies without hurting programs, he said.
That’s one of the beauties of consolidation, he said. There would be more opportunities to find efficiencies to contain costs, Wall said.
In the first year after the merger, there would not be any overall savings, but the districts would avoid paying penalties.
One exception to that would be if Livermore Falls Middle School is closed, which is a recommendation from the Planning Committee but not part of the merger plan.
Wall anticipates that a merger would include consolidating buildings and properties, he said.
“We really don’t know what the new board is going to do,” Pratt said.
The superintendents intend to reduce Central Office staffing, and in the second year, there would be only one superintendent, Wall said.
Ken Jacques of Livermore Falls, co-owner of The Ski Depot in Jay, pays taxes in all three towns. Consolidation would only help the business climate of the community, said Jacques, a member of the Reorganization Planning Committee.
Creating a school system that offers more than just the basics would make the area more attractive to younger families looking for new homes, he said.
“In order for businesses to survive, you need a population to sustain them," Jacques said. "We have seen a steady decline in population, therefore making it hard for any business to survive. As a taxpayer in all three towns, it makes sense to combine to control the rising property taxes. Very few new homes are being built. Without an influx of new residents, taxpayers in all three towns who choose to stay will have to make up for the loss of those taxes that are no longer being paid on empty or devalued homes.”
The area is on the verge of a resurgence, with projects such as the new medical center in Livermore Falls and the rebuilding of Route 4 from Livermore Falls into Jay, he said.
“We need to join together as a community and make sure we continue in the right direction,” he said. “We need to look forward for the next 50 years and not look back at the last 50 years. We need to keep moving forward if this area is to reinvent itself.”
Others oppose the plan.
James Collins, a Livermore Falls selectmen, said he would like to see the consolidation plan defeated.
“I’m against the plan and there are several reasons," Collins said. “One is there is no statement of how much money will be saved. Once the regional board gets formed, they can set their own budget. In an (alternative organizational structure) we can keep our schools and another neighboring town can share administration.”
“What I would like to see happen is see the plan defeated and go back in June with an (alternative organizational structure) plan to merge administration, transportation, special education and central office,” he said.
Winthrop and Fayette formed an alternative organizational structure last year. Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro also are partners in an AOS, he said.
“Study committees can make any recommendation they want,” he said, but that doesn’t mean a new board has to follow them.
“A new board can set its own budget," Collins said. "That’s pretty scary.”