About 100, families, community members and school district employees attended a public form held by Maine School Administrative District 17 last week. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

PARIS — Public safety protocols and remote learning. Preparedness for gun violence. Proper training. Staffing shortages and retention strategies. Transportation woes. Sleep deprivation. Student behaviors. Community schools in peril. These are just a few of the many issues that were raised last Thursday when Maine School Administrative District 17’s Board of Directors hosted a public meeting at Oxford Hills High School.

The forum was prefaced with a community survey asking for input on major topics within Oxford Hills, consolidation vs. community schools; permanent superintendent search; health and well being of students; student behavior; and school budgets. Local attorney James Janness, who has assisted with other school board meetings, was brought in as moderator.

Of the 163 responses, student learning, student health and well being and student behavior were deemed extremely important. Around half the respondents listed consolidation and a superintendent search as extremely important, and 45% indicated that school budgets are a top priority.

About 100 people attended the forum, including former school board directors, district staff from building administrators to ed techs and bus drivers, parents, students and alumni, municipal officials and a public library director worried about the communities’ consequences to school consolidation.

For the most part participants were focused on finding solutions to SAD 17’s challenges. Emotions were kept in check, even when references were made to unpopular pandemic protocols and alleged professional misconduct that saw staff fearing – and leaving due to fear – for their jobs.

“The forum was an incredibly positive experience from my perspective,” Heather Manchester, current interim superintendent and longtime curriculum director for SAD 17 told the Advertiser Democrat in an email statement. “Participants asked great questions of myself and the Board, and the dialogue was respectful during the entire event.”



Oxford Hills has two schools that are in need of replacing: Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris and Oxford Hills Middle School, which has one campus in Paris and one in Oxford. There is an expectation that with two schools high on Maine’s Department of Education building list that DOE could recommend closing Agnes Gray and transferring its students to attend Paris Elementary School and to prioritize a new middle school.

West Paris, who outnumbered participants from the seven other communities in the district, collectively urged maintaining community education, citing the importance of community connections to childhood development. Some pointed out that children as young as five could spend much of their day sitting on a bus and become anonymous attending a larger school in a different town.

Other points about maintaining an elementary school in West Paris included a question whether other schools in the district even have the adequate footprint required by state law to serve current students, never mind new ones; realizing lower property taxes by leaving SAD 17 for SAD 44 in Newry; and suggesting that the new middle school be built in West Paris instead of another town.

Former Board Director Nick DiConzo of West Paris pointed out Maine DOE pushing for consolidation is nothing new, referencing the period before Oxford Elementary School was built and the district pushed back to keep Otisfield students in their own school. He also reminded the crowd that when Waterford Memorial School’s enrollment fell below 60 and the rest of SAD 17 maintained their commitment to keeping it open.

Director Bob Jewell of Paris said that many of the challenges facing the district, namely lack of staffing, could be resolved with school consolidation. He said that consolidation would also decrease the financial burden on taxpayers. He asked that voters look at consolidation with an open mind.


“There is not any organization that still operates today in the same manner of 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “Most of the people that promise was made to [of holding onto community schools, presumably] are in their 90s, or they’re dead.”

The crowd groaned in response, punctuated with a handful of boos, until Moderator Janness intervened with his gavel.

“It’s just a thought,” Jewell insisted. “I’m just saying….I’m just saying that we ought to at least look at it. If it doesn’t make sense? Say no.”


Bus driver shortages are nothing new around Maine, and strategies to keep SAD 17’s transportation department fully staffed have not brought improvement. Many longtime drivers have retired. While the district pays thousands of dollars for each person hired and trained to drive school buses, once a licensed employee has their valuable CDL and a little experience there is little to stop them from seeking higher pay in other fields.

Oxford Hills saw its commercial self-inspection license suspended for a period about a year ago due to its bus mechanics having to substitute drive at times. That policy was changed and inspection licenses restored, but the lack of available, qualified substitute drivers became even more acute, as Hebron Station School’s entire bus route fell into disarray for weeks when there was no one available to drive them.


One parent from Hebron spoke about her daughter having to walk along a busy road with no sidewalk and a posted speed of 45 MPH for more than a mile during winter conditions. The family was faced with the choice between her safety or losing work and income.

Offers of signing bonuses last school year for new hires netted not one job applicant. The geographic area remains an ongoing obstacle to the district’s transportation challenges; the simple solution of running more buses when there are not enough drivers would be both expensive and impractical.


One of the first issues raised at the meeting was about the potential of mass gun violence. As one parent remarked, she felt the most likely place for her child to be shot and killed is in school. That issue of safety in schools was a topic of discussion at a recent board meeting.

Manchester announced that when SAD 17’s new assistant principal joins the district later this month, one of his first assignments will be a review of all safety protocols and he will establish a steering committee to address safety and update school security plans.


Retirement and the ‘great resignation’ have both been employment factors in the wake of the 2020 pandemic. Manchester noted that this year teacher contracts include a six percent raise (the largest ever seen in the district) as a way to make SAD 17 a more competitive employer. She said that benefit packages are also under review to make Oxford Hills a more attractive place for young employees.

This week, Manchester said,“It is important that we continue to have opportunities like this in order to improve communication between the district and the community.

“We received constructive feedback on a number of topics, and some good ideas for us to think about as we plan to go back to school. The community support for our school is tremendous, and events like this help us to continue to build trust with the constituents that we serve.”

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