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Consolidation moves forward, board agrees on ways to inform public

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STRONG – The Western Mountains Regional Planning Committee met for possibly the last time Thursday evening, to review information which will be presented to voters for the November 4 vote on district consolidation.

The proposed Western Mountains Regional School Unit would consist of the nine MSAD 9 towns; Farmington, Wilton, New Vineyard, Temple, Vienna, Weld, Industry, New Sharon and Chesterville, the five MSAD 58 towns of Avon, Phillips, Strong, Eustis and Kingfield, and Coplin Plantation and Highland Plantation. A 25-director school board would oversee the 3,200 student district, with seven Farmington directors, four Wilton directors and one director from each other community. Each director’s vote would be weighed, by town population.

The Western Mountains Regional Planning Committee met for possibly the last time Thursday evening.

The administration would eventually resemble the slightly-stripped down equivalent of the two existing MSAD administrations combined. A single superintendent would be assisted by a director of transportation, a director of special education and a business office director at an unspecified location. The RPC did make a recommendation that the office be as “geographically central” as possible, but the new school board could move where ever it pleased.

Information will likely begin going out in September. According to MSAD 58 Superintendent Quenten Clark, the state Department of Education will likely be finished reviewing the plan and issue a final approval around Sept. 1. That gives the school boards, town officials and RPC members two months to inform the public.

To do this, two large-scale public meetings will be held, one in MSAD 9 and one in MSAD 58 on two different dates. Each meeting will be attended by as many RPC members, including school board directors, as possible. Information may also be made available via a brochure the RPC will be issuing through multiple means, which answers some frequently asked questions about consolidation. Individual towns may hold their own meetings, independent of RPC action.

Specific financial data, outlining exactly what consolidation will cost or save, will likely not be available. Clark, among others, noted that the information would not be ultimately correct and it could be considered “deceptive” to issue figures that were eventually proven inaccurate. Furthermore, he said, the long-term financial impact of consolidation was impossible to predict.

“This is a long-term thing,” he stressed, “if someone were to say, ‘we should do this, we’re going to save $100,000 for one year,’ I think that would not be a good way to look at it.”

“If people see this as only a financial thing,” he added, “I think they should vote no.”

MSAD 9 Director Jo Josephson, of Temple, who is working on a committee looking at how information should be publicized, said that they had concluded that any savings or additional costs were likely to be overshadowed by the rise and fall of national fuel prices.

“In the end,” she said, “what’s going to matter is the price of fuel.”

The entire issue of consolidation was marketed by Governor John Baldacci as way to save money, but all local education officials have consistently said that they believe the shift will not result in any savings. Baldacci’s plan initially contained dramatic cuts in the number of teaching positions across the state, but that aspect was removed almost immediately. Now, MSAD 9 Superintendent Michael Cormier and Clark have said they think there may be some benefit for Franklin County children, as falling enrollments take their toll on the two districts’ various programs. A large district may be able to offer some things to a larger group of students that smaller ones could not afford for only a few children.

Along the way, the plan’s formation has not been a painless one, with many of those involved acknowledging that new tension has been created between the two, extremely-closely linked districts. Clark said that he looked forward to vote on the consolidation, up or down, so the common-sense oriented approaches of the past could begin again.

“I don’t want to see this become destructive,” he said.

The school boards will individually need to submit the revised RPC plan to the state, for further consideration by the DOE.

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