The move by the Calais City Council and school board to see if the city's residents want to withdraw from AOS 77 has prompted the Eastport school board also to begin the process for withdrawing from the regional school district. The friction that could lead to an unraveling of the district is being generated by some local school boards feeling that they are not receiving enough attention from the one superintendent, who they feel is spread too thinly in overseeing an AOS that includes 11 municipalities. But while both Calais and Eastport are looking into withdrawal, they are still gathering information about costs to see what the best option may be.
At its September 13 meeting, the Calais council voted to place the following referendum question on the November 6 ballot: "Do you favor the withdrawal of the Calais School Department from the Alternative Organizational Structure 77 (Sunrise County School System) effective on or before 7/1/2014? Note: If before, the effective date would be 7/1/2013." The decision to put the question out to the voters was made jointly by the council and the school board. Neither board has made a formal recommendation on whether or not to support the measure.
According to City Manager Diane Barnes, the city and school board have jointly hired, for $3,500, the consultant Charles Lawton, chief economist with Planning Decisions Inc. of Portland, to do a feasibility study on the costs involved with withdrawing from the AOS. Barnes expects the study will be done by mid-October, so taxpayers will have the information before the November 6 vote. If Calais decides to withdraw, it would be a municipal district, unless other towns also go through the referendum process and withdraw from the AOS and decide to join with Calais.
Barnes notes that the city council and school board want to have the vote gauge the sentiment of the community on the withdrawal question. They decided, then, to have the referendum be part of the presidential election vote in November, which usually has the highest voter turnout in Calais -- about 1,500 out of 2,000 voters.
David Markow, a member of the Calais school board and the school board and city council's liaison committee, stresses that the council and school board are still investigating their options and the costs. He says, though, that both boards feel a loss of control over the governance of the school system, and he outlines three areas of concern. "A lot has to do with the superintendent being spread out with too many demands placed on him. There are too many schools and towns to pay attention to. It's having an impact in Calais on what we'd like to do." Secondly, because the AOS administrative office is governed by the AOS board, the Calais school board feels a lack of immediate oversight of the superintendent's office. Finally, the AOS budget increased this past year, and there is concern that it will continue to increase. The challenge of effectively addressing the needs of all of the schools in the AOS may require an expansion of the superintendent's office, which would drive the budget up more. Markow notes that the Calais board is not concerned about the percentage share it is paying for the AOS budget, which at about 37% is the highest of any of the member municipalities.
Markow says it will take awhile to leave the AOS if voters favor withdrawal, and while it may be possible for that to happen for this coming fiscal year, it could be the following year.
In response to Calais' steps to withdraw, the Eastport School Committee, at its September 19 meeting, voted to begin the process also to withdraw from the AOS and pursue operations as its own school district and to invite neighboring school districts to join the Eastport district. Shannon Emery, chair of the Eastport school board, says that, since Calais pays such a significant percentage of the AOS budget, the Eastport board decided to explore its options.
Superintendent Jim Underwood says the Eastport board will be seeking to form a municipal school district. If other towns join with Eastport, an AOS could be formed, or the other towns could also become municipal districts and enter into interlocal agreements with any other district to share central office services. With interlocal agreements, the towns would share in those costs but, unlike in an AOS, curriculum and transportation services would not be offered and the same curriculum would not be required in all of the schools. Each town would have to hold a referendum vote on withdrawing from the AOS, and the referendum must be held at least 60 days before the beginning of the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
The superintendent has noted that the penalties that would be imposed if towns did not join a regional school district have now been eliminated, so Calais and other towns have been looking again at the financial impact of not being in a regional district.
Underwood observes that such action by the towns could end up rolling back the state's school regionalization effort. One change that state law now prohibits, though, is the formation of new school unions.
Jumping the gun?
According to Emery, who is also the chair of the joint AOS board, the Calais board did not approach the AOS board about the possibility of withdrawing. "They jumped the gun. They didn't talk to the other towns. They just did it on their own." She adds, "I wish Calais would have waited so we all could discuss this together."
Markow observes, though, that the AOS board meets very infrequently, with the last meeting having been in March to approve the budget, and that it's difficult to get an AOS board meeting called. He believes the move by Calais should not have been a surprise to anyone, since the issue of possible withdrawal has been discussed informally with others.
Emery also maintains that the Calais school board and council have been meeting with the superintendent up to four times a month, demanding "lots of his time." Although the AOS board has set a schedule for meetings for all of 11 municipalities, the Calais board has "insisted on special meetings" and is requiring "much more than 50% of this time." She believes other towns have suffered because of the amount of the superintendent's time that Calais has demanded. Last August, Lubec school board members had been frustrated when school was about to start, with several hiring decisions needed, but the board had not been able to hold a regular meeting since May.
Emery believes the superintendent has "an impossible job. It's nothing he's doing wrong. He gives 150% and works long, long hours."
Markow says the complaints by other towns probably are legitimate. "We probably do demand a lot of his time. There's a lot we want to do in Calais, and it's unable to be met by a superintendent spread so thinly." He notes that other towns need to have regular meetings, too, but the Calais board has become vocal about its concerns. Among the areas needing to be addressed in Calais are a review of programs, policy changes and budget planning. If the board has to make cuts in the Calais budget, it wants to understand the possible impacts. "One meeting a month is just not enough" to meet those needs, Markow says. Although the Calais board may have met four times in one month during the budget process, he says the board aims to have only two meetings a month. The other school boards in the AOS meet once every other month or on an as-needed basis.
Emery says the vote by Eastport is "to explore our options," which could include having an AOS with other towns or a municipal district. "We're not committing to anything yet. We want to talk with the other towns." Even if Calais decides not to withdraw, Emery says Eastport may still pursue forming an independent district, since Calais has "pushed past" the AOS rules on meetings and is requiring so much of the superintendent's time.
Emery says that the Eastport board members plan to speak with the AOS board at its next meeting, which probably will be in October. She notes that a referendum vote in Eastport probably would not be until after January. She hopes that an attorney with Drummond Woodsum, the legal counsel for the Maine School Management Association, can be present at the AOS meeting to let the towns know how they can proceed and whether there would need to be referendum votes in each town or whether the AOS could be reconstituted without withdrawal votes.
Emery believes that, if the AOS is set up with fewer towns and students, the costs might be less. Calais pays about 37% of the AOS budget costs because the costs are shared among the 11 member communities based on the number of students at their schools. Calais has about 570 students at its schools, including the vocational and day treatment centers. If the AOS is downsized, it would have to be reorganized, and Underwood is not sure what the legal requirements would be concerning contracts that are governed through the AOS. He notes the present AOS is spread over 68 miles with 11 different school boards, budgets and contracts.
With redistributed shares in an AOS without Calais, Underwood says the overall cost might be less but almost all districts would be paying more to cover the 37% Calais pays. With separate municipal districts and interlocal agreements, the arrangements should be "better financially" and should provide better services, he says.