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Consolidation committee alters cost-sharing plan

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STRONG – In perhaps one of its contentious meetings ever, the local Regional Planning Committee narrowly approved altering the cost sharing plan for the proposed Western Mountains Regional School Unit. The alteration seeks to moderate the impact of consolidating MSAD 58 and MSAD 9.

The problem was first discovered roughly a month ago, after MSAD 9 Superintendent Michael Cormier requested financial data dealing with the town of Weld, as part of the closing of Weld Elementary. The Department of Education, while looking at the data, recommended that another look be taken at the financial repercussions of MSAD 9 and MSAD 58, utilizing the 2008-2009 data now available.

Cormier agreed, and that information was submitted to the DOE through MSAD 9, MSAD 58, Coplin Plantation and Highland Plantation’s administrations. The DOE reported back that, unlike previously calculated results based on the 2007-2008 data, MSAD 9 would now absorb a large amount of MSAD 58’s local share of funding for education.

Wilton Selectman Paul Gooch, at far left, asks Jim Rier of the DOE, at far right. a question at the Regional Planning Committee Thursday night.

“We identified a shift that, within your communities, could be significant,” DOE’s Director of Finance and Operations Jim Rier said.

This amount would have varied from town to town. The biggest increase would have been seen in Farmington which would have, if it had been consolidated this year without any other changes to the district’s funding formula, been expected to pay $392,509 over what it actually paid. This would represent a 10.2 percent increase over the $3,495,139 it actually paid this year, as its local share. Every other MSAD 9 town would also see a similar increase in its local share.

The MSAD 58 towns would see a decrease of as much as 32 percent percent of their local shares, had they been consolidated this year.

The reason for this is because MSAD 58 currently pays a large amount of funding beyond what it is required to by the state’s Essential Programs and Services model. The large nature of the district partially contributes to this, as MSAD 58 maintains an elementary and junior high facility in four of its five member towns, in addition to Mt. Abram High School in Salem, requiring more specialized staff per student than MSAD 9, which has a single junior high school that all district children attend. This high amount of funding beyond EPS would at least partially be picked up by MSAD 9 towns.

The RPC finance subcommittee met with Rier in Augusta to discuss the problem, then again on September 2 to try and develop a way to mitigate the impact of the merge.

At least some of the general frustration and tension on display at the RPC meeting stems from the MSAD 58 school board and superintendent saying that they were not told that the cost sharing picture had changed early enough. Initially, Rier shared the concept of a more dramatic cost shift with only Cormier, who had been his original contact over the Weld matter. Cormier then immediately sent an email to Clark, informing him of the potential issue.

“This was a concern here,” MSAD 58 Superintendent Quenten Clark said, “because we had a meeting that night and I really had no information to share about the situation. It was an issue.”

“I’ve screamed and hollered about this for months,” MSAD 58 Board Chair Gerald “Mike” Pond said, “saying we didn’t have the real figures. This isn’t anything new.”

The finance subcommittee brought forward an alteration to the cost sharing plan, developed with Rier’s help. This plan effectively cushions the impact by requiring the MSAD 58 towns to bear a larger proportion of the total local share percentage. For example, under the old cost sharing plan, the town of Strong would contribute 3.88 percent of the Western Mountains Regional School Unit’s total local contribution in its first year of consolidation. Under the new plan, which was approved at the RPC meeting, Strong would pay 7.19 percent of the total local contribution..

What this does is increase Strong’s total local share to $633,300, which is exactly what it paid this year in an unconsolidated MSAD 58. The plan does this for most of the communities within the new district. In other words, in the first year the cost sharing plan effectively prevents any shifting of costs from MSAD 58 to MSAD 9.

The plan then begins to lessen in its effect. The second year of consolidation, 2010-2011, the cost sharing formula would develop each town’s local share giving an 80 percent weight to the 7.19 percent figure, and based 20 percent upon the actual, un-inflated 2010-2011 figures. In Strong’s case, assuming nothing else in the district changes, it would be responsible for 6.53 percent of the total local share, down from the 7.19 percent the year before.

This pattern continues for the next three years, with the 7.19 percent figure reducing its weight in the calculation by 20 percent each year. In the sixth year, 2014-2015, the original, heightened percentages would no longer apply at all. These five years however, supporters of the modification say, would give the new school board time to theoretically cut costs and find savings in economies of scale to offset the shift of cost sharing from MSAD 58 towns to MSAD 9 towns.

The majority of MSAD 58 members of the RPC did not support the alteration, for a variety of reasons. Pond said that utilizing a method to reduce the cost shift’s immediate impact was a less honest way of presenting the entire consolidation proposal to voters.

“You shouldn’t change the whole funding formula, just so you can make it palatable,” Pond said. He went to say that those supporting the proposal were trying to make the consolidation plan “nice, warm and fuzzy.”

Spencer Thompson of New Sharon, said that the plan was not a good idea.

“Everybody loses here,” he noted.

Comier supported the proposal, along with some members of the MSAD 9 contingent of the RPC and a few from the MSAD 58 contingent. Clark noted that the decision on whether to approve the cost sharing plan boiled down to whether RPC members actually wanted the consolidation plan to pass.

“It comes down to if you want [the consolidation plan] to work or not,” he said.

An initial proposal, to not implement the plan and simply allow the large cost shift to occur all at once, failed by a vote of 9 in favor to 14 opposed, with a single abstention. A second proposal, which was to implement the cost shift over five years, passed, receiving 13 votes in favor, 9 in opposition, and 2 abstentions.

The RPC also approved some minor revisions requested by the state. The consolidation plan, with the cost sharing modification, will now need to be approved by all four school boards for delivery to the state. It remains to be seen if MSAD 58’s board, which meets on Sept. 11, or MSAD 9’s board, which meets on Sept. 9, will vote to send the plans to the DOE.

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