Merging districts may not cut costs

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OXFORD – School Superintendent Mark Eastman said Friday that preliminary information shows that a merger with SAD 39 may not make financial sense.

Eastman and school officials across the state are hustling to file notices of merger intent with the Department of Education next month to meet the mandate of the state’s new school consolidation law. The law, enacted in June, requires a merging of school districts to provide more equitable educational opportunities and to reduce the state education spending by $36.5 million.

While SAD 17 meets the 2,500 student population criteria to be exempt from the mandate, other districts such as Buckfield’s SAD 39, with a 600-student population, are reaching out to organize with a larger district.

“It raised our concern level really high,” said Eastman of the initial financial templates that are being developed to assess the financial impact of merging with other school districts. Although not all the financial information, particularly some state funding numbers, is available yet, Eastman said it appears there would be no savings in the short term and perhaps none for three to five years.

“I’m not sure where the cost savings are in the short term,” Eastman said.

The problem, Eastman said, is that districts are looking at merging with districts with totally different numbers. For example, one district may pay a much high teacher salary than another. One district may be spending more than the state’s Essential Programs and Services model mandates while the other is not. Merging the two budgets can cause a tremendous disadvantage to one or both districts.

“The Department of Education didn’t do all their homework,” he said about a concern expressed by superintendents in the region who are in the middle of phase one “due diligence” – finding financially favorable merger partners.

Eastman said that besides looking at the financial ramifications of merging with Buckfield’s SAD 39, SAD 17 has been asked to review a merger with SAD 44 in Bethel. Although the merger with SAD 39 has been suggested by the state almost from the start, SAD 44 is looking for a partner and has asked the Oxford school district to take its budget numbers into account as they develop the financial template.

“The landscape is constantly shifting,” said Eastman about school districts that are attempting to find the right combination to fit their needs and the state’s mandate. Bethel was originally expected to merge with SAD 21 in Dixfield and SAD 43 in Rumford.

SAD 21 Superintendent Tom Ward said last week that that district will look at the effects if it joins any district. SAD 39 School Superintendent Richard Colpitts was out of town and unavailable for comment Friday.

The law mandates that the new districts ideally have at least 2,500 students but no fewer than 1,200 students. SAD 44 has just more than 800 students, SAD 21 fewer than 1,000 students and SAD 44 slightly fewer than 1,500 students.

The Department of Education is asking that letters of intent, which are not binding, be submitted by Aug. 31. Binding reorganization plans are due by the end of the year.

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