AOS #77 board members and residents of towns in the Sunrise County School System, at an October 17 meeting of the AOS board in Perry, expressed their unhappiness that Calais and possibly Eastport are considering leaving the AOS. Calais residents will be voting during the general election on November 6 on a local referendum question asking if they favor Calais withdrawing from the AOS on or before July 1, 2014. The Eastport school board also has voted to explore its options to withdraw from the AOS.
Noting that Calais High School has approximately 100 tuition students and Shead has 88, Dick Adams of Perry commented, "I'd advise Calais and Eastport to think twice about pulling out." The potential loss of tuition students and the funding they provide was emphasized by Krista Vining, a member of the Charlotte school board, who stated, "I think Calais doesn't understand the ramifications of the loss of tuition students." Referring to the withdrawal discussion, she said she is considering having her child attend Washington Academy "because of what's going on here." Beth Cushing of Pembroke noted that the towns "need to come together. We're not working together. It's the only way we're going to survive in the state of Maine."
Board member Herb Clark of Charlotte charged that the Calais members have "not given the AOS half a chance. You don't come to the meetings. You fellows are going to hurt," with a loss of tuition student income. "If you sit down and bite the bullet this AOS will work."
Board member David Markow of Calais said the other board members have a right to be frustrated with Calais. He explained, though, that the Calais school board members are concerned about the loss of local control and that the demands placed on the AOS administration by all of the 11 towns result in the administration not being able to meet the demands of the Calais board. "The problem is the structure is completely unworkable. We need a lot more interaction with the superintendent on a day-to-day basis. The students are the ones losing out." He acknowledged that the issue of the possible loss of tuition students at Calais High School "is a serious one. If we lose a lot, we will be really hurting. We're not getting out because we believe we will save money."
Others pointed out that their towns also have not received much of the superintendent's time, with board member Lisa Smith of Perry asking, "How thin can we stretch one man?" Tom Critchley, chair of the Robbinston school board, noted that the board had met only twice in six months. AOS board Chair Shannon Emery of Eastport commented that Calais demands most of the superintendent's time, "but you don't pay for it." Under the cost-sharing arrangement of the AOS, which is based on student population, Calais pays for 37% of the AOS budget.
Lubec selectman Michael Scrivani requested that the school boards in each town should be meeting at least once a month. Under the schedule set by the AOS board, the Calais board holds a meeting and a workshop each month, while the school boards in other towns meet once every other month or on an as-needed basis. Barbara Sellitto, a former Lubec school board member, suggested that videoconferencing be used, so that the superintendent would not have to travel to each town for the meetings. Superintendent Jim Underwood said the problem is not with the number of meetings but with the amount of time that is needed to prepare for them. He noted that the schools in the AOS had hired 40 people this past summer, with 23 meetings during that time.
Concerning the impact on the other towns if Calais leaves, attorney Edmond Bearor of Rudman Winchell in Bangor said he believes that Calais would likely be liable for the 37% share of the contracts for the superintendent and special education director until the contracts expire. The superintendent's contract extends to 2017 and the special education director's until 2015, while the other contracts with AOS central office staff are made annually and expire at the end of this fiscal year.
Underwood noted that Calais is paying about $300,000 for the current AOS budget, which would have to be shared among the other towns if Calais leaves, and all towns would see about a 37% increase in their AOS budget share. As for how much the AOS budget could be reduced without Calais, Underwood made a guess that it could be $100,000 less, with an increased level of services for the other towns. Markow, though, suggested that the AOS board should consider having a third party make an estimate on costs.
While state law requires 1,000 students in order for towns to form an AOS, the question of whether an AOS can continue with a fewer number of students will have to be researched.
Emery asked whether, if Calais decides not to leave the AOS, the AOS board could vote to terminate Calais from the AOS for "not upholding their part of the agreement." Bearor noted that the AOS agreement does provide a procedure for termination of a town for several possible reasons. Emery said that the AOS would still have a problem if Calais stays in, since Calais is demanding too much of the superintendent's time. "We need to communicate better. We can't go on like this."
Markow agreed that changes would need to be made and that the board would have to look at how the board works and how the superintendent's office functions. He noted that the board has not been meeting very often and not following through on some of its duties, such as staff evaluations. He suggested that the AOS budget might have to be increased significantly to add more personnel to the superintendent's office.
In response to a question from Emery about whether Calais would consider interlocal agreements with other towns if it leaves the AOS, Markow said they would be considered. Emery responded that action would place the AOS in more jeopardy, since it could lose more towns. "You say you want the superintendent all to yourself, but you're considering other towns," Emery said. "That's wrong."
Markow expected that the school board and city council will go along with the decision of Calais residents in the November 6 vote, which prompted Herb Clark to respond that citizens in Calais, which has a city council and manager instead of a town meeting form of government, "don't vote on anything. You fellows do whatever you want."