SAD 41 looking at realignment of pupils and programs

Public meeting March 27
at Penquis Valley
By Stuart Hedstrom 
Staff Writer

    MILO — As a way to provide more opportunities for the district’s students and to increase sources of revenues, officials in SAD 41 have been working on a plan that would realign some of the grades and programs. A public meeting on the proposal is scheduled for Wednesday, March 27 at 6 p.m. in the cafeteria at the Penquis Valley School complex.

    During a school board meeting on March 13 Superintendent Michael Wright said the discussion about a realignment plan began from his work in AOS partner district SAD 31, where he also serves as superintendent, as that school unit faced a number of financial challenges after a $1 million-plus shortfall was discovered.
    “We have been talking for a number of months on the challenges we had in SAD 31 financially,” Wright said. He explained these discussions progressed to the point where SAD 41 officials began to look at both ways to provide more opportunities for students and to increase sources of revenue. Wright said a letter would be mailed to parents “where we talk about our ideas for realignment for the next school year.”
    Wright said the letter would describe several possibilities, including relocating the new pre-K program from the community center in Derby to Milo Elementary and create two half-day sessions of the program. “There is an extra $100,000 of subsidy this year because of our pre-K program,” Wright said, which has one session for the current year.
    “Another thing we would like to do is relocate grade 6 to this complex,” Wright said, as sixth-graders would no longer attend the three elementary schools and would join their grade 7-8 peers in the middle school portion of Penquis Valley.
    “We would also like to create a behavioral program; we spend about $100,000 to send students out of district,” Wright said, saying a possible revenue source could be to take in students for such a program from other school units. Under the plans an alternate education program would also be created, “which would do things for us similar to our pre-K program, “Wright said. “It would give another opportunity for students for whom it’s just not working at the high school to stay in school.
    “It would possibly allow us to keep some of these kids here,” he said, mentioning that some of these pupils may otherwise drop out and this reduces the subsidy SAD 41 receives from the state. As with the behavioral program, SAD 41 could also receive tuition funds from other districts to place its students in the alternate program.
    The two programs are being proposed to be housed at the Marion C. Cook School in LaGrange, and the elementary K-5 students there would go to school in Milo under the realignment proposal. “There’s lots of details to be worked out, but the general realignment is that,” Wright said. “We are going to have an opportunity to present this to everyone in the district, have a question-and-answer session and bring ideas back to the board meeting in April.”
    “I think we have reached a point where we need to think creatively for the entire district to reach more students and to bring in revenues,” he said.
    “Right now we have seven teachers who are retiring in SAD 41,” Wright said, mentioning that the realignment could help fill these vacancies pending discussions with the teachers’ union. “We do have potential savings there and that’s even after we are proposing a new alternate program,” he said.
    “We see it as a real opportune time to be making those changes,” Wright said about the plan to be discussed on March 27.
    While no aspects of the plan have been formally approved to be implemented for the next academic year, the school board did agree to the concept of the alternate education program. “What I’m asking for tonight is to approve the concept so tomorrow we can put an ad out for the teacher,” Wright said. “It is not the same as approving the program, which you would do in April.” He explained after receiving public feedback the school board will meet on April 3 and hear from the administrators, “this is what we would like to do moving forward for next year.”
    When asked about the alternate education program, Assistant Superintendent/Direct of Student Services Stacy Shorey said, “There is an application process” for students considering enrolling.
    “The Carleton Project, an established alternate education program that has a history of success, would be advising us,” Wright said, as the program would be SAD 41’s to administer. “We are going to get the concept out to students this spring. We would be starting with seven to 15 students and if we only had seven we would be looking for more.”
    In other business, School Board Chair Don Crossman reported on a meeting of the finance committee by saying, “We are right on target with our spending and expenditures. Our focus now will be on the budget for the upcoming school year.”
    Wright said the budget for 2013-14 would be challenging with potential curtailments from the state and increases in districts’ contributions to teacher retirements. “We are not sure if these things are going to happen but there’s a good chance a lot of this will happen,” he said.
    The superintendent shared with the board a letter from the Brownville Selectmen on the school budget costs. “SAD 41 has a budget this year that is less than it was five years ago with the same number of students,” Wright said. “We are probably the only district around that has not seen an increase in its school budget the last five years.”
    Wright said flat funding the budget “is a simple solution to a complex problem.” He said the school budget “does not stop with the board” as voters have two opportunities to weigh in on the spending plan at the district meeting and then the referendum election.
    “You have done a good job in keeping the budget down and also providing for the students,” Wright told the school board.
    The meeting was the first since the Penquis Valley High School boys basketball team captured the Class C state championship and several of the administrators had words to say about the squad’s accomplishment. “I thought it was such a great community event to see everybody down at the Auditorium,” Wright said. He mentioned that several employees of the Bangor Auditorium told him that in their many years they had “never seen a more excitable, vocal crowd” than that cheering on the Patriots.
    The win gave head coach Tony Hamlin his 401st career victory, and “I’m told that makes him the 13th coach in the state of Maine to reach that number,” Wright said. He also said on the radio he heard that Hamlin is the sole coach to have won games on the Bangor Auditorium court in each of the last five decades.
    Hamlin had said soon after the state championship game that we would be retiring as head coach, and during the meeting the school board formally accepted his resignation from the position.
    Penquis Valley Principal Matt Hackett said a great deal of excitement led up to and followed the state championship game on March 2. “Danny and Liz Gerrish donated a tour bus for the basketball team and cheerleaders to travel down to the state game,” Hackett said.
    He said a pep rally was held the day before the championship contest, in which the Gerrishs were recognized and in which Camden National Bank presented a $375 check to provide high-schoolers with free tickets to see their classmates play in the state final. “Seventy five kids didn’t have to buy tickets, a number would not have been able to go otherwise,” Hackett said.
    “If you look around, I think everyone from the district was down there that day,” he said.
    “The state championship basketball team did come to Milo Elementary,” Principal Eric Smith said. “They signed autographs and I understand it was really well liked.”
    Smith said he would like to recognize fourth-grade teachers Miranda McMahon and Allison Woodward, who have worked to bring a series of Math Nights to Milo Elementary. He said the two, along with Jeanne Murphy, organized the program and at the first session nine staff members provided activities for 58 students.
    “That’s pretty impressive, to say 50-60 kids stay after school to do some math activities,” Smith said.
    Hackett said that a district safety committee has been meeting and members have updated crisis rosters and identified some needs for the SAD 41 schools. “We are hoping by April vacation there will be new buzzer monitors at all of our schools,” Hackett said as these devices would be placed at the entrances to the district’s four schools. “This tends to be brought to my attention most often when people bring up safety (concerns).”
    He also said plans are being made for an evacuation drill in the spring at Penquis Valley, to help provide information on how to better handle a real emergency at the complex.   

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