School officials rap state over consolidation plan

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LEWISTON – A small crowd of people scolded a state Department of Education official and lawmakers for making a “bad law” during a forum to discuss school district consolidation Thursday evening.

It was the last of 26 regional meetings throughout the state. The sessions were mandated in the consolidation plan, to give the public more information and a chance to ask questions.

“What is the shelf life on this fiasco?” asked Union 44 board member Michael Beaulieu of Litchfield.

About 35 residents, lawmakers, school administrators and board members spread out through the Lewiston Middle School auditorium to hear the details, presented by David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Department of Education. He was standing in for Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, who couldn’t make it due to a back injury.

During the presentation, Connerty-Marin discussed the next steps in the consolidation process. The ideal size for school units will be 2,500 students, but all must have at least 1,200, with the exception of tribal and island schools. All units must submit plans to find efficiencies.

Connerty-Marin stressed that school choice will be preserved.

Districts and school unions next have to form reorganization planning committees, to look at options for consolidation. Once a recommendation is made, it will be approved by the department then go out to voter referendum. If voters reject it, however, the districts could face penalties.

Connerty-Marin said the plan came about through study results that showed lack of increase in test scores. Recommendations showed: “Too many layers of governance were standing in the way of coherence,” he said.

Most questions revolved around where savings would be achieved. Connerty-Marin explained that savings would be shown through cost per student and essential programs and services. After the meeting, he said the Lewiston meeting generated more public comment and fewer questions than the others.

Districts spend anywhere from $175 to more than $700 per student, at an average of $358. Connerty-Marin said the average will be reduced to $204 under consolidation.

John Butler Jr., a member of the Lewiston School Committee, said that district already runs efficiently, and asked how the department could ask it to make more cuts. Connerty-Marin said that if the district can prove a level of efficiency, it won’t be asked to make more cuts.

Melvin Curtis, director of special education for Lewiston, wondered how the cuts would affect special education.

“The intent is to take from the administration, not services,” Connerty-Marin responded.

Linda Cummings, who works in the central office for Union 30, wondered what might happen to central office personnel in districts being split up.

Connerty-Marin said that existing contracts must be honored by new districts.

But she and her coworkers don’t work under contracts, Cummings said. Connerty-Marin said that’s a more complicated situation.

“This is changing people’s lives,” Cummings responded. “In two years, I could be without a job.”

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