KINGFIELD — The Regional School Unit 58 board of directors faced a no-win situation, deciding to accept a Maine Department of Education $31,000 penalty, rather than partnering with another school district to develop a regional service center.
The problem wasn’t that the district couldn’t find a partner district and develop a plan, Superintendent Susan Pratt told the board Thursday night. The problem was that they were facing a six-week deadline to find another school willing and ready to form a long-term agreement without receiving any guidance from the state.
She and other district administrators attended a Sept. 8 presentation at the Augusta Civic Center hosted by the Maine School Management Association and the Drummond Woodsum law firm. The MDOE proposal was reviewed and explained, but she waited nearly another month for the actual MDOE application form to become available online, she said.
“I just got the application last Friday,” she said.
Similar to consolidation efforts begun by former Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron in January 2008, the MDOE’s goal is to save money by reducing the administrative costs and to take advantage of shared services, including transportation, special education, professional development and financial services.
Gendron’s plan was to reduce the number of school districts and local school committees from 290 to 26 by July 2008. Many districts chose to pay penalties rather than give up local control, and by July 2008, 215 individual school districts remained.
With this 2017 regional services plan, Pratt explained, each new interlocal partnership in the state would have to screen and hire its own executive director, who would not be part of the Maine State Retirement System.
The MDOE will pay for 55 percent of the employee’s salary and related financial expenses, but the partnering districts will be responsible for benefits and obligations that are as yet unknown, Pratt said. Without the MDOE providing guidance for the executive director’s job description, she said, each interlocal partnership’s new board would have to that job on its own.
These details all have to be decided before the new partner districts can send the application to the MDOE, Pratt said.
The MDOE has awarded grants in 2017 to encourage cost-saving initiatives. Enabling Maine Students to Benefit from Regional and Coordinated Approaches to Education, known by the acronym EMBRACE, was launched in response to Executive Order 2017-001, issued by Gov. Paul LePage, for promoting Regional Efforts to Achieve Efficiencies in Delivering Educational Services.
Although Pratt said she agrees with LePage’s goal of sharing resources with other districts, RSU 58 already does something similar. The district is part of the Western Maine Educational Collaborative, which provides its 13 member school systems with opportunities to share professional development, purchasing power and educational resources.
The MDOE plan would not recognize the nonprofit WMEC as a regional services partner, Pratt said.
The board approved delaying any partnership plans with other school districts and accepting the $46-per-student penalty for the coming budget year.
Districts that do not form interlocal partnerships in 2018-19 will pay a $92-per-student penalty.
Some neighboring school districts’ boards have not even seen the MDOE plan, Pratt said, and she’s hearing that many superintendents and school boards are voting not to participate in the governor’s mandate.