Schools can get there from here


Systems – health care systems, state and federal government, schools, those kinds of systems – tend to move slowly, even glacially, at least until someone lights a fire under them.

The “fire” under our local schools, I learned at recent meeting at Mt. Blue High School, is the timetable on school consolidation passed last month by the Maine Legislature.

By Aug. 31, school district must file letters of intent with the state about with whom they plan to reorganize. Final plans must be submitted by Dec. 1. The department of education will approve those plans, or return them for further work within two weeks, and then we, the voters, will consider these plans for approval or rejection by Jan. 15. It had to be done this fast to meet the governor’s budget, which included the anticipated savings.

This is the tortoise forced to exceed the rabbit’s pace: change is coming!

The high cost of education, especially administration, and the regressive nature of property taxes has been something many people have complained about for years. This new law is meant to address those problems. Of course, it has already created new problems, and generated new complaints.

That is part and parcel of doing something new.

The 60-plus page bill leaves areas to be further defined by the Legislature, parts are simply unclear and while suggestions for divvying up the state into new Regional School Units (you’ll be hearing a lot about RSUs in the future) have been made by the department of education, it’s all up in the air.

Nobody knows who is going to work with whom, and whether all current school administrative units can meet the demands of the law when most of the rest of the partnering is complete.

That’s a lot of uncertainty.

For example, the state “suggests” a partnership between SAD 9, SAD 58 (which includes Phillips, Strong and Kingfield), and the Rangeley school unit, including a couple of towns on Maine’s western border which tuition their high schoolers to New Hampshire schools (it’s closer).

This arrangement seems unlikely, though nothing is ruled out. It appears nobody wants to embrace the problems of running a school district that extends from the Canadian border to Wilton, and includes a couple of Oxford County towns that nobody knows how to get to from here.

There was much talk at Mt. Blue about consolidation being similar to the high school prom. You have to find a date to dance, but what to do if you can’t find someone to go with you?

For now, it appears that SAD 9 is dancing with SAD 58, leaving Rangeley the wallflower.

The state wants to reduce school administrative units to about 80. The law mandates administrative partnerships serving at least 2,500 students, but allows a minimum of 1,200 in areas where larger amounts are impractical.

Districts that are deemed “efficient” and “high performing” will have some exceptions, and penalties exists for districts that don’t want to dance and opt-out: for some, their state subsidy would get reduced by 50 percent. For others, subsidies for administration and future funding would be cut, and chances for new construction lessened.

There is a provision for “doughnut holes,” districts that can’t find a partner and get left out. There are exemptions for islands and tribal schools.

With only a few hundred students, Rangeley is well below the 1,200 threshold, but maybe it’ll be a doughnut hole. I think the town should petition to be considered an island (surrounded by unincorporated townships instead of water), but like all school units, they will have to submit a plan to reduce administrative costs.

The pressure of these penalties makes this scramble for partners something districts can’t afford to ignore. Just saying “no thanks” could be costly.

So schools are headed for a major but uncharted change, with known uncertainties, on a timetable ignoring all the usual speed limits. That, it seems to me, is just what makes it likely to work.

I don’t envy the speed with which school administrators (especially ones likely to lose their jobs as a result of the changes they are working on) have to steward this process. But they will pull it off.

And the looseness of the process leaves enormous room for local control. The original proposal for school consolidation from Gov. John Baldacci raised an uproar because it was rigid and imposed from above.

This law our legislators worked out is all about choice, and local solutions. Each school district will submit to the state the consolidation plan that best suits its needs.

Though it’s a scramble, many districts already partner with others. SAD 9 and SAD 58 are already sharing personnel, a regional vocational school, and other agreements. Local school officials know the needs and assets of their areas, making it possible to strengthen current bonds and add creative new relationships and efficiencies.

Administrative cost sharing intends to increase educational opportunity. More opportunities for students was a selling point to rural towns for forming school administrative districts fifty years ago, but this time, it’s supposed to come without closing schools, laying off teachers or eliminating programs.

I optimistically hope so. I hope this is the win-win situation the governor and Legislature envisioned. Time will tell.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done, fast.

Sandy Gregor is a freelance journalist and woodworker who parented a child through 13 years of education in SAD 9 schools. She lives in Temple. E-mail her at [email protected]