FRENCHVILLE – State Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Wednesday met with representatives of SAD 27, SAD 33, SAD 24 and the Madawaska School Department to outline changes to the school consolidation law.
The original legislation, enacted in 2007, called for a sweeping reorganization of the state’s 298 school districts into 88 regional school units governed by regional school boards.
Under the law, Maine school districts with some exceptions must work together to reorganize into larger, more efficient units or reorganize their own administrative structures to reduce costs.
Early on in the process, it became clear the plan was creating difficulties for a number of school districts, including those in the St. John Valley. After a number of objections to the law and proposals for changes, Gendron proposed a set of amendments that was passed in April.
“We worked hard to create an option different from the regional school unit plan but that would allow school communities to bring together school functions,” Gendron said. “The alternative organizational structures, or AOS, will be treated as single units under state law.”
The solution was developed in large part by representatives of Mount Desert Island schools, and the model is now an option for parts of the state isolated by water or expanses of rural territory, as in the St. John Valley.
An AOS consolidates system administration, special education administration, transportation administration and the administration of business functions.
In addition, core curriculum, school policies, calendars and collective bargaining practices must be consistent among the member local school units within the AOS.
This differs from the original regional school unit structures under adoption around the state in that an AOS may, under the law, maintain distinct local schools and school boards within the larger association, according to Gendron.
That was good news to members of the St. John Valley reorganization committee.
“The people in my area will not tolerate having their children bused out to another town,” Charlie Clarke, town councilman in Hamlin of SAD 24, said.
“This is not about closing down or consolidating schools,” Gendron said.
At the same time, once the four valley districts are rolled into the single AOS, it will be treated by the state as one entity when it comes to calculating essential programs and services funding, state subsidies and required state and federal reporting.
“There will be consolidation of administration into one central office,” Gendron said. “There can be buildings for each [school] unit but we are interested in streamlining for efficiencies.”
Currently, the four districts cover a 98-mile long corridor in the St. John Valley with four high schools and seven elementary schools.
“Transportation is something that could be coordinated centrally with a single fleet of buses,” Gendron said. “But there could still be local control of the operations.”
However, all schools that are part of the AOS must adopt a uniform core curriculum.
“We will allow for differentiation,” Gendron said. “But there must be a plan in place for a process to bring all the districts together to look at the curriculum and bring it into alignment.”
When it comes to proposing budgets, Gendron said there is a little more latitude within an AOS.
“Each local unit will develop its budget and the local committee will then review it,” she said. “The AOS central office will be responsible for developing the budget for the system coordinator.”
Once the AOS is in place, its budget will be decided through two public votes: one asking taxpayers to approve funding in several categories for K-12 programs locally, and a second to vote on each community’s proportional share of the AOS costs.
“It is our hope that in this structure you will begin to come together on purchasing and maintenance in a more collaborative manner,” Gendron said. “There are other areas you can coordinate on for cost sharing and ways to partner that may create economies.”
Each of the school units within an AOS – in this case SAD 24, SAD 33, SAD 27 and the Madawaska School Department – would remain intact with their own local boards and local administration.
Ideally, each would report to a single central superintendent’s office.
“You will have the latitude to make decisions for what works best for you,” Gendron said. “The common elements you will all see are efficiencies and curriculum.”
To assure the core curriculum among the different schools is coming into alignment, Gendron said, outside syllabus reviews will be conducted.
“It’s not about teaching to the tests,” Gendron said when several teachers and committee members expressed concern. “It’s about all Maine students should be graduating with the same basic education and knowledge.”
At the same time, Gendron said the department recognizes some school districts possess certain strengths in specific areas. She hopes the AOS format will encourage schools to share knowledge and resources and to implement mentoring programs.
The notion of school choice, Gendron stressed, will never be forced.
“The law does not give choice in those areas which don’t already have it on the books,” she said. “It does preserve choice where it is.”
When it comes to state allocation of money, it will be funneled directly into the AOS. From there, it’s up to the AOS members to device a cost-sharing mechanism to fairly distribute the funds.
“Creativity will be the order of the day,” Danny Beechard of SAD 33 said.
The St. John Valley AOS group will meet again on June 3 to recommend what action it wishes to take and draft a letter of intent to the commissioner.