The Calais School Committee has asked the superintendent of AOS #77, James Underwood, to work with the Maine School Management Association to estimate the cost to Calais if the city withdraws from the AOS and sets up its own school district. The action was taken at a school board meeting on August 2.
Underwood says the reduction in services from the central office, since the AOS was formed in 2010, is the reason that the board is looking into possible withdrawal. "It's less than what they'd like. They're getting a small percentage of what they got." He adds that every one of the 11 municipalities in the AOS "lost a good deal" of central office service with the regionalization of the school districts. Although no other school boards have taken the initial steps into looking at withdrawal, there has been some discussion in Pembroke about leaving the AOS.
Underwood notes that the AOS costs are not the issue for the Calais board members. Calais, like almost all of the towns in the AOS, is still spending less for central office costs than it did for its own a superintendent's office in 2009, before the AOS was formed. According to a budget reduction comparison that was presented last fall to the AOS #77 school board, the regionalization had resulted, over three years, in nearly $400,000 in savings for the cost of services provided through the central office for the 11 towns in the AOS. Even with a nearly $100,000 increase in the AOS budget this year, the cumulative savings over three years for the 11 towns has been just over $200,000.
The superintendent observes that the penalties that would be imposed if towns did not join a regional school district have now been eliminated, so the Calais board members "want another look at the financial impact" of not being in a regional school district. A number of school districts ended up deciding to join into either a regional school unit (RSU) or alternative organizational structure (AOS) because the penalties for not joining were significant.
While the Calais school board members are serious about looking into withdrawing, Underwood says that they are still in the initial stages of the process.
The superintendent believes the withdrawal process would involve two steps: a vote by the school board and then a local referendum in Calais. The vote to withdraw from the AOS has to occur at least 60 days before the start of a new fiscal year, which begins on July 1. The school district would need to develop a plan on how the state requirements for the education of students would be met, and the plan would have to be approved by the commissioner of education. Underwood does not yet know the legal issues that would have to be addressed for Calais to have its own district.
The superintendent says that, if Calais were to withdraw, there would be some benefit to the 10 other towns in the AOS, as they would receive more service from the central office. The AOS costs, though, would be redistributed among the remaining towns. At present, Calais pays about 37% of the AOS budget costs. The costs are shared among the 11 member communities based on the number of students at their schools. "There would be a domino effect," Underwood observes. "But it's too early to consider the impact of redistribution."
Of the Calais board, he says, "They want to get all of the information and then make a decision. It will be months down the road. It's premature to look at the impact."
The joint AOS board will discuss the issue of the possible withdrawal by Calais at some point, although the next meeting of the board has not yet been scheduled.