Public learns SAD 41 realignment plan details

By Stuart Hedstrom 
Staff Writer

    MILO — After it was first presented to the SAD 41 school board two weeks prior, the public had the opportunity to attend a hearing detailing the current stages of a proposed realignment plan involving different grade levels and existing and new programs during a meeting on March 27 in the Penquis Valley School cafeteria.

    “Tonight’s meeting is what we are calling a realignment meeting,” Superintendent Michael Wright said. “We are going to talk about some of the possibilities and some of the challenges that have led to these possibilities.” Reading from his PowerPoint notes he said, “The purpose of tonight’s meeting is to discuss a plan that would increase educational opportunities for students and also help meet some of the financial challenges to the district.”
    Wright said the district is currently in its second year of an AOS partnership with SAD 31 of the Howland area. “That’s a combining of central office services,” he said. “Right now we share many things,” with examples including the superintendent and assistant superintendent positions, business manager, transportation director and more.
    “We have done a lot of combining of services, I think it has helped us not only professionally but also financially,” Wright said.
    The superintendent explained that SAD 41 gets about 75 percent of its funding for the school budget in the form of state subsidy, while the remaining approximate 25 percent comes from the district communities (Atkinson, Brownville, LaGrange and Milo). He said other schools districts have more of a 50/50 split between the two revenue sources and “you get a much larger share of state subsidy and a much lower local subsidy.”
    “If you look at over the last five years, SAD 41 has a budget this year that is less than it was five years ago with the same number of students,” Wright said, adding that few if any school districts can say likewise.
    “Each year when we try to put together our budget we look at everything,” Wright said. He said he tells the school board that they work “to maintain a high level of programming, but also be affordable to the people in your communities.”
    Wright said SAD 41 has been facing financial challenges over the last four years he has been the superintendent, and the budget for 2013-14 will likely be no exception. “Usually you get a preliminary printout from the state in January,” he said, saying the early budget figures often are close to the final totals in June. “This year there is absolutely no confidence that’s going to be the case,” he said, saying school districts across Maine are likely to be holding off their budget processes as long as possible with potential curtailments looming.
    Listing the challenges SAD 41 is facing next year, Wright said Gov. Paul LePage is looking run some of the costs for teachers’ retirements through the school systems and “that would be about a $100,000 increase to our school budget.” He said the current year’s spending plan has a $23,000 curtailment from the state which “could be carried over to next year as well.”
    He said the district’s health care costs could rise by 11 percent, about $143,000, for next year. Per the collective bargaining agreement with the teacher’s association the district is committed to $123,000 more in wages and teachers who are looking to retire can opt to cash in their sick days which could total up to $56,000. Wright also said heating oil costs could also once again rise.
    “We have been fortunate in SAD 41 to have a very healthy fund balance,” Wright said, saying the account is about $768,000 in the current year but the district cannot continually draw from it.
    “We have been looking at possibilities, what can we do to generate revenue in our district to balance those challenges,” Wright said. He mentioned that at a meeting of the Maine School of Management in Augusta he was told that school districts need to think creatively to meet fiscal challenges, and Assistant Superintendent Stacy Shorey heard the same creative need message during the annual meeting of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council.
    As a result SAD 41 officials began to develop a plan to serve students and increase revenues, and Wright began by discussing the Marion C. Cook School in LaGrange which currently educates K-6 students. “Each year the Cook School is always on our radar when it’s time to talk school budget because of the low numbers there,” Wright said as the current enrollment is 33 students compared to 124 and 264 respectively at the elementary schools in Brownville and Milo.
    “I have never been an advocate of closing the Cook School, but I think we have reached a point where we need to look at doing something different with the Cook School,” Wright said, mentioning the potential enrollment could be under 30 students next year.
    “We have talked about kids, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work for them at the high school,” Wright said, saying some pupils struggle in the traditional 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. structure. “When they drop out of school they don’t only close the door on their education, we also lose their subsidy. We are looking to have an alternate education program at the Cook School.”
    Wright said the alternate education program would be modeled after the Carleton Project, which has a program similar to what could be in SAD 41 in place for students in Houlton. He said he and Shorey visited the Aroostook County program earlier this year and met with students. “The ones we talked to all had post-secondary plans and all were on schedule to graduate,” he said, saying the alternate program in SAD 41 could start with eight to 15 students from the district and maybe SAD 31 pupils and/or those from outside SAD 41 who attend on a tuition-basis.
    Currently two students attend a daily behavioral program in Old Town, which costs about $100,000 for SAD 41. Wright said if the district were to create its own program this cost would be reduced and the district could also bring in students from outside SAD 41 which like the alternate education program would bring in new revenues. He said this behavioral program would also be housed at the Cook School under the realignment plan. Shorey later added that the maximum number for the program would likely be six.
    The K-6 students in LaGrange would need to attend school elsewhere with sixth-graders from all three district elementary schools going to Penquis Valley and LaGrange K-5 pupils attending Milo Elementary. Wright said there would be space to house grade 6 students at Penquis Valley, and Milo Elementary would be able to accommodate the LaGrange pupils.
    The current school year is the first for the SAD 41 pre-kindergarten program. “This year is the first year we have a pre-K program housed in the Community Center down in Derby,” Wright said. “It gives an opportunity this year for 20 students to have that pre-K experience and it’s added about $100,000 in subsidy to our rolls.”
    Under the realignment plan the pre-K program would move to Milo Elementary, space would be available with sixth-graders at Penquis Valley, and a second half-day section could be added. He said another pre-K offering, for 20 more students, could add $90,000 to $100,000 in revenues for the 2014 fiscal year, which combined with the behavioral program could bring as much as $150,000 in new revenues.
    A slide on possible revenues after 2014, with the addition of the alternate education program in the 2015 fiscal year, had the totals between the three programs ranging up to $375,000 for each of the three years from 2015-17. “This allows us to not think about eliminating programs and raising taxes any higher than we have to,” Wright said.
    He said the next steps would be for the school board to meet on April 3, during which they will be looking at the 2013-14 budget in a workshop and hearing a presentation from a representative of the Carleton Project. “Over the next few weeks we will really get into some of the possible details, who will teach what,” Wright said, saying that teachers need to know what grades they will be teaching and what school they will be in no later than June 1. He added that due to over a half dozen pending retirements the teaching positions could be moved around so no educators lose their jobs with K-6 students no longer attending school in LaGrange.
    “Ultimately we would look to have the board approve new programs and perhaps authorize the superintendent to report back to them on how to make it happen,” Wright said. He said the school board is scheduled to have a special meeting on Monday, April 22 and then its regular May meeting on the 1st and realignment plan items could be on these agendas.
    Responding to a question from the parent of a rising LaGrange sixth-grader about when they would learn where their child would be attending school next year, Wright said, “I would guess April or sometime in May.”
    Another question inquired how sixth-graders would interact with high schoolers at Penquis Valley. Principal Matt Hackett said the different age groups would see each other arriving at school, and also in the morning breakfast program, but, “Once the bell rings to start the day there really isn’t any program time where their paths would cross.”
    “There is no perfect plan, but I think we will be in a lot better place than if we don’t do anything,” Wright said at the conclusion of his presentation.

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