Public meeting on consolidation draws few community members, many students

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KINGFIELD – Mt. Abram High School students made up the bulk of the audience at a public hearing held Thursday evening to answer questions about consolidation.

“I’d like to welcome,” School Board Chairman Gerald “Mike” Pond, of Strong, joked, “the whole Senior class.”

The meeting will be followed by smaller gatherings in each individual town that makes up MSAD 58. Superintendent Quenten Clark briefed the audience on the turbulent history of the MSAD 9/MSAD 58 Regional Planning Committee’s Western Mountains Regional School Unit.

The plan would combine MSAD 58 and MSAD 9’s towns, as well as Coplin and Highland Plantation, into a single school district. That district would be governed by a 25-director board, with each community getting a single director except for Wilton and Farmington which would receive four and seven directors respectively.

After being rejected four times, the RPC’s plan with some amendments was approved by Department of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, setting the entire plan up for a referendum vote during the November 4 national election.

The plan has been panned by both school boards. MSAD 58’s board voted 7 to 1 in favor of recommending that voters not approve the consolidation plan. Similarly, MSAD 9’s board voted 13 to 1 to recommend the plan not pass.

The reasons for the votes are numerous. Members of the RPC and district administration have repeatedly said that the process was set to an inappropriate timeline. New regulations and rules, constantly being reviewed by the legislature and DOE, have often surprised RPC members at each meeting.

“The rules changed daily,” Clark noted.

Other board problems are more basic. The new district would be big, as two already-large rural districts would be combined.

“This is just such a big district,” Clark emphasized, “you’re talking about Belgrade to the border [of Canada].”

The two districts are also very different, despite their proximity. MSAD 58 uses four small schools for Grades K-8, and a single high school. MSAD 9, despite its far greater population, operates out of three elementary schools, a single junior high school and a high school. The greater distance between the MSAD 58 towns, Clark said, has seen to that evolution.

“We could move students around,” Clark said, “move them together, close some buildings. But our communities don’t want to do that, they want to hold on to their local schools.”

The concern is that when the two districts merge, the new board will be forced to make tough choices on how diminished resources are allocated. MSAD 58’s board worries that could result in schools closing.

“They’re in this situation,” Clark said, “and the pressure is going to be on them to not raise taxes.”

If the district does not consolidate, the penalty was estimated at roughly $124,000 less in state subsidies. Clark said that while “a big number,” that represented only 1.5 percent of MSAD 58’s budget.

There were few new announcements. A petition with nearly 60,000 signatures has been submitted to the Secretary of State for verification which, if certified, could result in a citizen’s veto question on the November 2009 referendum.

“Some of us,” Director Alan Morse, of Phillips, said, “hold out great hope of dealing with this at the referendum level.”

However, Morse noted that a referendum vote conducted across the state could be difficult to win. Large, populated areas of the state, such as Portland, Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston, Gorham and Brunswick are all largely unaffected by the reorganization legislation, as their school district’s are well over the 2,500 student minimum. While they are required to make the 5 percent reductions in transportation, facilities and special education expenditures, they are not required to consolidate through their alternate plans.

“It’s going to be a real uphill battle,” Morse noted.

Pamphlets are being made available through a variety of sources within MSAD 58, containing information about the proposed merge. Informational meetings have been scheduled on the following days:

  • Monday, October 27th at Stratton Elementary School at 5:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 28th at Phillips Elementary School at 5:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, October 29th at Kingfield Elementary School at 5:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, October 30th at Strong Elementary School at 5:30 p.m.
In the end, Clark said, he was interested in seeing the district move forward.
“We need to get this thing behind us,” Clark said. “It’s not a good idea, and we need to vote it down so we can go back to commonsense solutions with neighboring districts. Like SAD 9.”
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