WINTHROP — Members of the Winthrop School Committee are exploring whether the town should — or could — join forces with another school district.
It is not clear whether any nearby districts would be open to consolidating with the Winthrop School Department, said Virginia Geyer, chairwoman of the committee, at a meeting Wednesday night. Officials also are investigating whether consolidation make sense for the town’s finances and educational offerings.
After noting Winthrop voters have rejected previous consolidation efforts, Geyer stressed that local officials must do considerable research on the costs and that it’s not certain they will make a proposal.
“I was real hesitant to make it real public,” Geyer said at the meeting. “What I don’t want to do is throw anybody in any kind of tizzy. I don’t want to make people think for sure that we’re going to consolidate or not consolidate. Rather, we’re trying to fact-find.”
On Wednesday night, she mentioned several possibilities for consolidation, including joining an existing district or reducing the Winthrop School Department to just its grade school and paying tuition for older students to attend out-of-town schools. She also said the town could find savings by merging positions in the School Department with those in the Town Office.
Geyer has contacted officials in Regional School Unit 2, which stretches from Monmouth to Dresden, and RSU 38, also known as the Maranacook Area Schools and headquartered in Readfield. Officials from those districts didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment.
In recent years, Winthrop voters and councilors have rejected various budget proposals from the Winthrop School Department, at least partly on the grounds that too much of the proposed funding was for administrative costs.
Three councilors at the meeting Wednesday night suggested they are open to the concept of consolidation, depending on the savings that may result.
“I want to thank the school board for doing this research,” Councilor Rita Moran said. “If residents are concerned about anything, it’s property taxes.”
By the time Geyer brought up the subject of consolidation, the cost of educating the town’s students was already on the minds of the dozen or so officials who attended the meeting Wednesday night.
Since 2016, the Winthrop School Department has been suffering from a deficit of more than $1 million that was caused by a budgeting error. That error created a wedge between town and school officials, who disagreed about who was responsible.
On Wednesday, the town’s auditing firm, RHR Smith & Co., delivered a presentation showing the district’s operating deficit stood at $1.36 million at the end of the 2018 fiscal year. That was an improvement from 2017, when the deficit grew to $1.7 million.
Other changes are underway at the Town Office that make this a good time to discuss the consolidation of services, Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Fuller said.
Councilors are searching for an interim town manager after Ryan Frost, who has been town manager for the last year, decided to return to his old position as the town’s police chief.
And the School Department is being run by an interim superintendent, Cornelia Brown, after Gary Rosenthal resigned from the post last year.
“The time is ripe to have these discussions,” Fuller said.
But Geyer emphasized that any attempts to consolidate with another school district could lessen the control that Winthrop citizens have over their schools. She referred to the town of Chelsea,where voters are considering whether to take the first steps to remove their elementary school from the Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit.
Geyer said councilors should help research the pros and cons of school consolidation. She also warned that other school districts might be reluctant to absorb the deficit Winthrop taxpayers are facing.
One member of the Winthrop School Committee, Joe Pietroski, said he does not think local officials should invest the money and energy that would be required to investigate a school consolidation.
“I think in the long term, we’re better off strengthening the existing school system,” Pietroski said.