MSAD 58 looks at different partnership, demands information from the state

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated, to reflect some comments by the Department of Education regarding the sharing of information with MSAD 58.

KINGFIELD – The MSAD 58 school board has asked its superintendent to file a letter of intent to form an “Alternative Organizational Structure” with the Rangeley-area school system. Previously, MSAD 58 had only expressed real consideration and interest in merging with MSAD 9.

The current plan, still under review by the state Department of Education, has been submitted repeatedly by the local Regional Planning Committee. A preliminary plan was turned down, as was a second version submitted in February, due to technical issues with the document. This newest incarnation was submitted by the RPC in June.

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 weighted, by town population.

The MSAD 58 board did not instruct Superintendent Quenten Clark to tell the DOE it intended to pull out of the existing consolidation proposal with MSAD 9. Instead, it asked him to file a separate letter of intent with Union 36, which consists of Dallas Plantation, Lincoln Plantation, Magalloway Plantation, Rangeley, Rangeley Plantation and Sandy River Plantation. That school union had been considering an arrangement with MSAD 44, which consists of Bethel and the surrounding communities.

Clark noted that he had since learned that a letter of intent to form an Alternative Organizational Structure, also known as an “AOS,” with Union 37 would not be accepted by the DOE as it considered the MSAD 58/MSAD 9 proposal.

“Turns out they [the MSAD 58 board] can’t do that,” Clark said. “They’ll have to choose one plan or the other.”

At that same school board meeting on August 21, the MSAD 58 board also filed a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act with the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The district seeks information regarding the state of the consolidation plan and information relating to the proposed merge.

The DOE notes that the data in question was made available at an earlier meeting between representatives of both MSAD 58 and MSAD 9 with DOE’s Director of Finance and Operations Jim Rier, and that that all pertinent information has been available for the district’s consideration.

It appears that the financial data pertaining to the future of the Western Mountains Regional School Unit may in fact be an inadvertent, inaccurate representation. The budget information for a special 10-month financial year was submitted to that agency by the district, who then unknowingly returned  data that would not necessarily apply for a full 12-month financial year. This could result in some towns bearing more of the financial burden than originally expected. The RPC’s finance subcommittee will be meeting with Rier about that data in the near future. That committee’s findings will then be discussed at an RPC meeting scheduled for Sept. 4.

Both MSAD 58 and MSAD 9 board directors and superintendents have said that the consolidation process has been destructive toward the close relationship the districts share. Several told DOE Commissioner Susan Gendron so at a meeting in May.

The complex AOS concept was created by the Maine Legislature in response to the DOE refusing to approve a plan submitted by Mount Desert Island’s school district, effectively allowing a loose federation of school districts to operate with separate school boards and superintendents, yet still be considered one unit by the state. An AOS would, however, perhaps be more acceptable to the Rangeley-area school union. A standard, RSU district would likely shift a large portion of the district’s budget from the generally low valuation MSAD 58 towns onto the shoulders of the taxpayers of high valuation Rangeley and the plantations.

An AOS has its own challenges however. Clark described the AOS as a “more confused version of the school union” which he says was implemented by the Legislature with little consideration to the possible challenges of such an arrangement.

Furthermore, an AOS between Union 37 and MSAD 58 would not yield the required minimum student population of 1,000. However, Clark says he has been told by Gendron that the consolidation law could be amended to allow the children from the Unorganized Territories to count toward MSAD 58’s population. Currently, those students do not count toward the minimum, and a change would require action by the Legislature.

MSAD 9 is close to a population of 2,400. It is possible that an RSU consisting solely of MSAD 9 would meet the DOE’s criteria.

The MSAD 58/MSAD 9 plan has been scheduled by the RPC to go before voters on Nov. 4. That may no longer be possible, Clark noted, as the RPC had previously expected the plan to be approved by the DOE by Sept. 1. The RPC, which had been engaged in developing informational pamphlets and arranging public meetings to explain the pros and cons of the plan, now will likely spend at least one meeting readdressing the new financial information.

After the Sept. 4 RPC meeting, Clark says, the MSAD 58 board will again consider the option of dropping the MSAD 58/MSAD 9 district and proceeding with a MSAD 58/Union 37 AOS, although action may not be taken at that time. The timing of the process is becoming increasingly important. All school districts have a Jan. 30 deadline for consolidation. While voting “no” on a consolidation plan will only incur the state’s relatively mild penalties, not voting on any plan at all could potentially cost a school district its state subsidies.

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