OXFORD – SAD 17 directors gave Superintendent Mark Eastman the go-ahead to organize a joint planning committee with SAD 39 to explore the formation of a consolidated school system.

“I think we need to turn over every rock to see if there are any savings. That’s why I’m in favor of doing this process,” Eastman said.

SAD 17 Finance Committee members agreed late last month that changes in the reorganization law that allow for an “alternative organizational structure” may allow SADs 17 and 39 to expand cost-sharing efforts while meeting requirements of the state’s school consolidation law.

“I think there’s flexibility. I think we have an opportunity here,” Eastman said.

Once appointed, the joint planning committee will develop the plan’s structure between August and Nov. 1, when the plan will be turned over to an attorney for review then submitted to the state Department of Education by Dec. 15. The plan will be accepted or rejected by Education Commissioner Susan Gendron by Dec. 30. If the plan is accepted, a referendum will be held Jan. 30 for district voters to accept or reject the plan, Eastman said.

Under the law, the alternative organizational structure would require the two districts to function as a single school system in many respects. The combined district would receive a single state subsidy check and have a common core curriculum, single budget, central office with one superintendent, combined administration for areas such as special education and transportation and adopt consistent school policies and calendars.

Despite a single budget, Eastman said SAD 39 communities would not expect SAD 17 communities to pick up the tab for their education costs.

“They don’t expect us to pay, but the devil is in the details. How do we make that happen?” Eastman asked.

The alternative educational structure also requires a “consistent” bargaining contract between employees in the two districts. It would not all happen at once, Eastman said when asked by directors how the contract negotiations would work.

The move to negotiate “consistent” contracts would take a good five years to attain, he said.

“It’s a long process,” said director Don Gouin of Norway. “All these things are not going to happen boom.”

Earlier this year, SAD 17 directors asked that the district “stand alone” after a study showed a $635,000 financial burden to consolidate with SAD 39 and a significant, unspecified financial penalty if voters disapproved a merger request. The penalty threat has been withdrawn by Gendron if SAD 17 tries but fails to get voter consensus to form an alternative organizational structure, Eastman said.

SAD 39, however, would be financially penalized if its voters disapproved the move. It has a plan waiting to be submitted to the commissioner asking to merge with SADs 21 (Dixfield) and 43 (Rumford.) Both of those districts are expected to continue with their merger plans if SAD 39 bows out.

SAD 39 Superintendent Rick Colpitts said Monday night that if the merger with SAD 17 does not happen, they will be forced to look elsewhere.

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