The St. George Education Options Committee will not recommend withdrawing from Regional School Unit 13 when its findings are presented to the Select Board and residents in early March. But the committee will suggest continued exploration of that option.

That was the consensus reached at a two-and-a-half-hour meeting on Feb. 23.

Most of the meeting was spent reviewing a draft of a slide presentation that will be shown to the Select Board at the Monday, March 7 meeting. At that time, the committee will request that the board schedule a public information session on Thursday, March 10, so that residents of the town can view the slides and learn about the choices they have going forward.

The presentations would be in preparation for a warrant article, discussion and vote at St. George town meeting on Tuesday, March 15. Article 23 of the March 15 warrant asks, “to see what action the town wished to take concerning the education of the students of the town.”

At the start of the Feb. 23 meeting, the St. George Education Options Committee discussed a request from Select Board Chairman William Reinhardt in response to a suggestion from a Thomaston representative to the RSU 13 board. Committee Chairman Terry Driscoll said that board member was considering asking the RSU 13 board to postpone the transfer of St. George eighth-graders for one year and wanted the town’s opinion.

If the board agreed to that request, Driscoll said, his committee would ask the Select Board to use Article 23 to request that the town raise local funds to hire a teacher for those eighth-grade students. He said that would cost about $50,000 for the year.

After a discussion about how upcoming town elections might change the membership of the RSU 13 board, committee members agreed to suggest the question be put to the RSU 13 board at the next meeting on Thursday, March 3.

“I think it would be nice to have a discussion and vote before we get to town meeting,” said Driscoll. “If the answer is yes we have to raise $50,000. If it’s no, we have something else to talk about.”

Legislature mulling ways to alter consolidation law

Committee member Eric Waters reported on conversations he has had with Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, in regard to possible legislative action to enable St. George to withdraw from RSU 13 without incurring penalties.

“He seemed to be sympathetic to our cause, but trying to balance all the needs in the state,” said Waters. “He’s not anti-consolidation.” Waters said Kruger was concerned about the cost of dismantling the new school districts that have been formed since regionalization was mandated in 2008, and was working with other legislators to craft a bill to help districts that have not merged with others, as the law requires.

“Chuck wants to get penalties waived, but is not sure what the final bill will look like,” said Waters.

“The penalties are the withholding of subsidies,” Driscoll said. “We’re not getting anything.” He said St. George had little to lose by failing to remain in RSU 13.

“It’s important to be clear that people aren’t against consolidation, so much as forced consolidation, the way it was done,” said committee member Josh McPhail. He said people from around the state were working to do things that made economic and educational sense within the law.

Withdrawal moves to back burner

Driscoll said withdrawing from RSU 13 would take between two and three years.

“I think circumstances will change in that time,” he said. “If we were to withdraw and it’s five years before penalties kick in, we could save that amount in reduced costs.”

At a meeting Jan. 19, the committee heard a presentation by former School Administrative District 50 Business Manager John Spear, who is working for St. George as a consultant. Spear showed the committee a spreadsheet he created that would allow them to see what the town’s costs for education would be under a variety of scenarios.

Spear projected changes to the town’s mil rate and per-pupil cost in the event St. George decided to withdraw from the RSU and paid the costs to continue to educate kindergarten through eighth-grade students in town and send those in grades nine through 12 to a nearby high school.

Spear said the property tax levy to the town, if such a plan had been in place in the current year, would have been $213,000 lower than was actually paid.

Driscoll said Feb. 23 that the current issue was broader than whether St. George should leave the larger district. He said other towns in the state were frustrated with the choices open to them and cited Alna, Monmouth, Kennebunkport, Cape Elizabeth and some Down East communities as possible allies.

“I’ve been through the law,” said Driscoll, “I have fewer problems with the law than with the way the law is being implemented.” He said the law allowed municipalities to have control over all but certain so-called core functions.

Those core functions, outlined in the committee’s slide presentation, are listed as employing the superintendent, running a central office, administering special education, adopting a regional school budget, setting school policies, and reporting to state and federal agencies.

According to Driscoll, the RSU can allow local school committees to be formed with the power to propose budgets for local schools, raise additional funds for local programs and “perform any duties, functions and services other than core functions.”

“Penalties only come into play because we have an administration that doesn’t want to cede any discretion to local communities,” he said. “It is in their power to allow the things we need.”

He said pressure should be put on the RSU 13 board and administration to explain why they are unwilling to allow St. George and other towns in the six-town district to provide educational opportunities that are not budgeted for the whole district.

At the January meeting of the RSU 13 board, McPhail said, the school district’s attorney confirmed St. George’s assertion that it would be legal for a local or municipal committee to raise funds for specific programs in a local school that were not district-wide, but said the district would not be required to accept those funds.

Decisions come from top without explanation

Driscoll and other committee members described three major issues in the relationship between RSU 13 and the town.

The primary concern, he said, was the way the RSU 13 board related to residents and communities. He said the board used a top-down model of governance that reduced local representation and influence, and that decisions were made in a way that was not clear to constituents.

As examples, he spoke of the restructuring of what were formerly two high schools into one school called Oceanside High School on two campuses, and of the grade reassignments that resulted from that decision.

McPhail said the decision to alter the high school configuration was made on the basis of space needs in the aftermath of the closure of the MacDougal School in Rockland and the subsequent shift of those students to the South School and Rockland District Middle School complex, rather than what would provide the best education to the district’s students.

“There’s no strategic plan, no grand plan here,” said McPhail. “Is Many Flags the grand vision and are we working toward that?”

Under the Many Flags/One Campus plan, a complex would be built for a high school that consolidates Oceanside High School, a vocational center to serve the region now served by the Mid-Coast School of Technology, a community college through the University of Maine, a technical college through Kennebec Valley Community College, and a marine trades center.

McPhail said planning should have come before the decision to move students and teachers from one building to another.

“The current decisions have been hastily and poorly made,” said McPhail. He said postponing the changes would benefit students and teachers, and could save the district money.

As an example, McPhail said teachers were now ordering textbooks for courses for which students might be able to access needed resources using their computers. He said School Administrative Districts 5 and 50 never aligned their curricula and that teachers were negotiating with one another to decide what programs would be taught next year.

“Operations right now are in survival mode,” he said.

McPhail said a study group convened by Lucarelli in 2009 to review options for high school education in RSU 13 recommended consolidating those classes beginning in the fall of 2010, but that the board decided to postpone that change until 2011. When St. George later asked to postpone moving its eighth-grade students until 2012, he said, Lucarelli later reminded the board that she wanted to move faster than they did.

He said this was not a good time for the district to incur such costs as new signage, uniforms and paint as school names, mascots and colors change.

Committee member Josiah Wilson also serves on the RSU 13 board. He said board members did not understand the impact of their decision to close the MacDougal School would have on students in other grades.

‘Many walls, no foundation’

Another issue raised by the committee was the call for so-called educational equity throughout the district. In the slide presentation, Driscoll referred to this as a “formula for mediocrity” and questioned how such equity would be evaluated.

“We haven’t really described where we want to be,” said committee member Sherman Hoyt. “How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going?”

McPhail said the RSU 13 decision would take bad practices that exist at the high schools and bring them to the eighth grade.

“Kindergarten through eighth grade we’re successful,” he said. “Rather than investigate why that is, we’re saying they’re not prepared well.”

The committee members agreed that, while they felt the decision to reconfigure the middle and high school grades should be postponed, it was not the most important issue for the districts’ six towns.

More important, they said, was the need for RSU 13 board members to articulate the long-range goals that guide their decision-making and the tools they will use to evaluate the results of those decisions. McPhail said SAD 50 used to operate under five-year plans and seek consensus from faculty members to support those plans.

“This is many walls, no foundation,” he said.

McPhail said a slide presentation made by RSU 13 board member Loren Andrews was the closest thing the board had to a plan. According to Wilson, that presentation was created at the request of RSU 13 board Chairman Ruth Anne Hohfeld as part of a discussion about articulating a mission statement for the district.

In the fall of 2009 a study conducted in regard to the MacDougal School closure recommended to the RSU 13 board that no changes be made to the configuration of the St. George School, McPhail said. He said Lucarelli supported that recommendation, listing the K-8 configuration at St. George as “unchangeable,” but reversed her position in January 2010.

Committee seeks ideas from town residents

Driscoll said that, in order to model the sort of collaborative decision-making the committee wanted to see in RSU 13, it would use the March 10 meeting as an opportunity to seek ideas from the general public.

“We’re a small percentage of the town,” he said. “There has to be broad participation. If that’s not forthcoming, it doesn’t mean enough for us to go on.”

“All of this was brought up and ignored during the discussions that led to the formation of the RSU,” Driscoll said. “There are much more elegant ways to bring these two districts together.”

The St. George Education Options Committee will ask the Select Board to review its recommendations the meeting Monday, March 7 at 7 p.m.

At that time, the Education Options Committee will request that the board schedule a public information session on Thursday, March 10, so that residents of the town can view the slides and learn about the choices they have going forward.

The RSU 13 board’s next meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 3.

St. George residents will vote on certain items by written ballot on Monday, March 14 and will hold their annual public town meeting Tuesday, March 15.

To view the warrant for that meeting, visit the website at stgeorgemaine.com.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.