AUGUSTA (AP) – Summer’s almost over, and now homework is due – and some of Maine’s school districts are staying up late to make sure it gets done.

But a day before today’s deadline for Maine school districts to file consolidation outlines, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said she expected “most, if not all” systems to comply with the new moneysaving mandate.

Gendron also said the department will be watching closely to see who meets the first of three deadlines set forth by the Legislature as part of a school district consolidation strategy to save $36.5 million in the next fiscal year.

“We will be on the phone” to those who do not to file reorganization plans, the commissioner promised during a briefing before the Appropriations Committee.

Today is the deadline for school administrative units to submit to the state notices of intent to merge with other units. As of Thursday, the department said it had received notices from 156 school units.

Because some units were considering multiple merger scenarios, Gendron said she expected the department to receive 300 different proposals. Some plans were developing and some units were deciding their course as late as Thursday night, Gendron said.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

By Dec. 1, districts have to present their final organization plans, and cities and towns would be expected to vote on whether to approve mergers by January 15, 2008. The goal is to create units of at least 2,500 students and create a maximum of 80 school units. Maine has 290 school districts, and 152 superintendents, some of whom serve multiple districts.

The law allows exceptions due to geography, light population densities and other factors.

“I would anticipate we would have most if not all” of the units required to submit merger notices submit them by today, Gendron told the committee.

Asked whether many units are holding back on filing, she said, “There are some,” but added, “Those are few and far between.”

Gendron acknowledged that school units have had limited time to draft their plans since the consolidation law was signed as part of the state budget in early June. A number of districts have seen their proposals fall apart, forcing them to look for other willing partners.

Also, some districts have done analyses showing that hooking up with others would cost more rather than save money. In those cases, “I’m asking our finance team to do an analysis,” said the commissioner.

However, some communities not required to look for merger partners are doing so anyway, said Gendron. Because of their size, Westbrook and Windham are not required to file notices, but they are talking to Raymond about consolidation, she said.

Gendron said she will reply to all units by Sept. 14 as to whether their notices of intent comply with the law.

The primary focus now is on finding partners, and the emphasis will be on savings when December plans are filed, she said.

Frustration with the process is generating rumors and calls for revisions in the law, and in at least one case has led to a superintendent’s resignation.

In Winslow, School Union 52 Superintendent Elaine Miller announced her resignation Wednesday and said the reorganization law was a factor in her decision. The unit, which also includes China and Vassalboro, is considering two consolidation options.

Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he’s heard reports that some districts are hiring their superintendents to long-term contracts as a way to circumvent the consolidation law.

“Is there any way to track that at all?” asked Martin, noting that the board on which he serves signed a one-year contract with the superintendent in view of the new law.

Gendron said she receives periodic reports of superintendents’ contract changes and will update lawmakers.

State Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, said he will submit legislation to repeal the financial penalties that school systems face for rejecting the consolidation mandate, saying districts are being told to move too fast.

“There are too many changes happening too rapidly for schools to stand back, take a clear-headed look at this and decide the best course of action,” Edgecomb, a retired school superintendent, said in a statement.


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