MEXICO – Officials of school systems based in Bethel and Rangeley, which are 76 miles apart, voted unanimously Thursday night to begin the process of merging.

The nearly 20 members of the Reorganizational Planning Committee began a series of fast-track meetings to develop a plan to present to the state’s Department of Education by Nov. 14. They will meet each Thursday in one SAD 43’s schools in either Rumford or Mexico.

Bill Cumming, a facilitator supplied by the state department, presided at the opening session. The group took three actions: Members unanimously agreed to begin the process of forming a regional school system; they appointed Sydney Pew of the SAD 44 school board and Ginny Nuttall of Rangeley as co-chairmen; and they agreed to the member towns and plantations of the potential new school system.

If the plan is approved by the Department of Education and voters of both school systems, the system would be comprised of Bethel, Newry, Andover, Greenwood and Woodstock, which are SAD 44 member towns; the town of Rangeley, and Rangeley, Lincoln, Magalloway, Sandy River and Dallas plantations, which make up School Union 37. The unaffiliated towns of Upton and Gilead would also be members.

The total resident population of the combined system is just over 8,000; the total student population about 1,000, of which about 80 percent are in SAD 44.

Both SAD 44 and School Union 37 also educate students from one or more of the nearby unorganized territories, but so far, those numbers are not included in the student total. That could change if the state Legislature modifies the law when it is in session early next year.

Both school systems had looked into potential administrative partnerships with other districts during the past year or so, but were not successful.

By state law, a vote on a new administrative school system must be taken by the end of January, and it must be up and running by July 1, 2009.

Pew said penalties for not forming a regional school system would be $180,000 for SAD 44 and $90,000 for School Union 37 during the first year.

The group also discussed the makeup of a governing board, which would include at least one member from each municipality, with four from Bethel, and two each from Rangeley, Andover, Greenwood and Woodstock.

A decision on whether to agree on a 20-person board will be made at the next meeting, along with discussions and possible decisions on the role and powers of possible local school committees, disposition of real and personal property, and data from the superintendents on indebtedness and school personnel contracts.

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