Spotlight

Embracing Consolidation in Rural Maine

by THOMAS J. WARD

When Maine’s legislators passed a controversial measure in 2007 mandating school consolidation, I was superintendent of a small district in the mountains of western Maine, an area dealing with a decades-long slide in student enrollment common to many of the state’s 241 districts at the time.

I took the position that the law could not have come at a better time. Business as usual for public education was no longer financially viable. Instead of fighting, we had to look at the positives of embracing consolidation.

Thomas WardThomas Ward



Today, as a result of 18 months of expedited planning, I now serve as the superintendent for the newly consolidated Western Foothills Regional School Unit 10 in Dixfield, Maine. Where we had three neighboring school districts with enrollments of 1,500, 900 and 600 students, we now have one, serving the 12 communities within a radius of 30 miles of the central office. The consolidated district, with 3,000 students and 600 employees, operates four elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools.

Emphasizing Positives
The consolidation process began in December 2007 with an aggressive time line to officially form a regional unit by July 1, 2009. The challenges were numerous and could not have been overcome without coordinated actions among the three school districts.

The law for consolidation required a school district seek neighboring districts that would be willing to partner to reach a minimum student count of 2,500. Under the law, once we had secured our partners, we formed a reorganization planning committee composed of community representatives from each district.

Facing tough fiscal realities, we had to downsize central administration and find greater efficiencies. Yet we also wanted to retain our current programs and services for the children in our communities. We developed a budget with no increase in spending to our communities, emphasizing the positives — financial, academic, and equitable programming — that consolidation would bring.

The hurdles we needed to overcome were natural human fears — the loss of local control, the reduction of jobs and the uncertainty of designing an equitable cost-sharing formula for 12 towns. Not only were we turning three central offices into one, we were consolidating three independent boards of education into one. We had to create a governing board whose size would be manageable, yet represented the dozen communities fairly. So we settled on a 17-member board with weighted votes based on population. Each community was represented by at least one board member.

Regarding the fear of job losses, we were fortunate to have to eliminate only one filled position, owing to retirements and staff moving to new employment elsewhere.

The superintendency issue was resolved when one of the three district superintendents accepted a superintendency in another school district in Maine. The other already held an assistant superintendency in a neighboring district whose position was contracted out for 40 percent of his time as superintendent in the smallest of three districts. He was able to convert the assist-ant superintendency into a full-time post.

We also knew we could not move forward until we devised a cost-sharing formula that was fair to all. In Maine, school funding is based on state property valuations and student enrollment. Any money raised above state funding is referred to as “additional local.” These additional local monies are divided among the communities of the regional unit by a formula also based on state valuation and student population.

We designed a cost-sharing process for the additional local monies that helped the 12 communities to transition to an agreed-upon formula over an eight-year period in which 75 percent was based on state property valuation and 25 percent on student population in each community. We now are in our second year of the formula, and it is living up to expectations.

Our greatest challenge was communication and making the decision process transparent. How were we going to help our citizens understand what they were going to be voting on?

We mailed a brochure that contained just the key points of the consolidation plan to every resident in the three districts. It emphasized our themes of “Children First,” “This Is an Opportunity” and “equity without going backward.” It was clear and concise. We held regional informational meetings and attended any public event that would put us on the program and allow us to speak. The end result: All 12 communities voted in favor of consolidation.

Beyond Expectations
We are now nine months into being RSU 10, and the most rewarding accomplishment to this point is that we have achieved what we promised voters and in most cases exceeded expectations. We found immediate savings of more than $600,000 in a $34 million budget by bringing three central administrations into one. We saved another $200,000 with our day treatment program for students with special needs. This savings continues to grow as we bring more out-of-district placements back to the district. Efficiencies in transportation, maintenance, staff development and the general operations of the central office continue to generate savings.

Academically, we have made great strides toward our opening theme of “Becoming One” by providing time for our staffs to come together and share through districtwide meetings by grade level, content area and K-12 specialty areas — music, art and physical education/health. We are working on a common report card, teacher evaluation and teacher certification process.

The meetings have helped staff to recognize how they have more similarities than differences. They saw how they could learn from each other and immediately asked for more opportunities to come together as one. We now are preparing to move in the direction of sharing staff through our distance learning technology, particularly among our three high schools. This will provide access to more Advanced Placement course offerings.

Our journey is really just beginning. Even in difficult budget times we are excited about the possibilities and increased opportunities for our children in the western foothills of Maine.

Thomas Ward is superintendent of the Western Foothills Regional School Unit 10 in Dixfield, Maine. E-mail: TWard@rsu10.org