By Diana Bowley of the Bangor Daily News: DOVER-FOXCROFT - SAD 68 is among a handful of districts across the state that has found itself as the "doughnut hole" of school district regionalization.
School districts around SAD 68 have joined efforts elsewhere to comply with Maine's school consolidation law, which requires school districts to form regional school units in order to reduce administrative costs.
SAD 41 (Milo area) and SAD 64 (Corinth area) are working together, and SAD 4 (Guilford area) and SAD 46 (Dexter area) are moving forward on plans to partner. That leaves SAD 68 (Dover-Foxcroft, Charleston, Monson and Sebec) smack in the middle of its neighbors with no one to partner with except Union 60 (Greenville, Beaver Cove, Kingsbury Plantation, Shirley and Willimantic), which is located a school district away.
Greenville, which had been working with Jackman and Bingham, now finds itself in a similar situation because of its isolation.
"That leaves us in the middle with nowhere to go," SAD 68 Superintendent John Dirnbauer said recently.
The district tuitions its students to Foxcroft Academy, an independent school.
SAD 68 is not unique, according to David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. He said there are a handful of districts with fewer than 1,200 students having trouble finding partners. There is still time, and work is going on to resolve those situations, he noted recently.
After the school consolidation law took effect, all of the schools in the Penquis region came together at the same table, but the districts began splintering off.
Last week, SAD 68 and Union 60, with the exception of Willimantic, were back at the table, alone this time.
"Greenville is back at our table and is our only partner for this dance," Sue Mackey Andrews, co-chairman of SAD 68's regional planning committee, said at the public meeting held jointly by the two districts' planning committees on Nov. 19.
Norman Higgins, a consultant for the DOE, told representatives of the two school districts last week they are not alone in their struggles to find and clarify who their partners are. He agreed, however, there are no easy answers for Greenville or SAD 68.
Outside of the meeting, Dirnbauer said Maine's commissioner of education, Susan Gendron, needs to exert some influence on the discussions. He said SAD 68 needs to be part of a larger organization for greater opportunities and financial savings in future years.
"We need to keep working on this, but we need some direction from the Department of Education instead of leaving us out in the wild trying to figure it out for ourselves," Dirnbauer said.
Higgins said the law gives the Department of Education's commissioner broad discretionary power on approving the plans. The commissioner's job is to ensure that viable, sustainable organizations be put in place, he said.
Greenville had been at the table with Jackman and Bingham, but unlike Greenville, those two schools are on the high receiving end of state subsidy so they are now concentrating their efforts on one another.
"We've found ourselves in a sort of similar situation as SAD 68," Union 60 Superintendent Heather Perry said recently.
"That leaves the two of us to work together to try to get a plan in place," Perry said. "I think the two units have a lot of common issues and we have similar valuations."
Participants at last week's meeting peppered Higgins with questions regarding the process, including school choice, salary negotiations, undesignated funds, the role of local school committees and declining population.
Higgins said there is no provision in the law if a region starts with more than 1,200 students, but falls short in later years because of declining enrollment.
Combined, SADs 4, 41, 46 and 68 have lost more than 20 percent of their student population since 1995. That's the equivalent of losing one school district, Higgins told participants at last week's meeting.
School choice has been one of the most talked-about issues and the most misunderstood, according to Higgins. Students who have school choice now are protected forever since there is no provision in the law to diminish school choice, he said.
If a school district has undesignated funds when an RSU is formed, those funds can be used to reduce the assessments in the communities where the funds were generated. However, he suggested that the funds be applied over a two- to three-year period to offset property taxes.
Some of those answers appeared to bring relief to some of the participants.
The discussion, which will continue Wednesday, Nov. 28, at the Monson Elementary School, is an example of the community rising to the
challenge to find the best plan for pupils, according to Higgins.
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