After months of development, member towns of AOS 93 have specific options to consider for restructuring the school system, which administrators said will reduce inefficiency, improve education options, and save money.
Two general plans are coming before each school committee in the next month for members to vote on which options to look into, followed by the formation of exploratory committees in each town that will decide on details for voter approval. The exploration began in April and changes are on track for the polls in November 2024.
AOS 93 has contained the towns of Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro, and South Bristol since 2009, when it replaced School Union 74 under then-Gov. John Baldacci’s school consolidation law.
Bristol Consolidated School, Great Salt Bay Community School, Jefferson Village School, Nobleboro Central School, and South Bristol School are presently individual districts with governing committees that share administration through the AOS 93 central office.
Administrators have said the current system presents inefficiencies in finances, education, and administration and has failed around the state, with at least nine of 17 AOS systems formed 15 years ago dissolved or in the process of dissolving.
All of AOS 93’s school committees earlier this year approved exploring reorganizing options with an educational consultant from Drummond Woodsum. Over 200 public survey responses and a meeting with select boards, discussion with staff and service contractors, and input from the Maine Department of Education resulted in two hypothetical scenarios.
What options are pursued and their specific details, including how schools are operated, will be determined by the towns involved rather than central offices.
“I feel it is my responsibility to bring the possible options to the boards/committees, and through them to the towns for consideration,” Superintendent Lynsey Johnston said. “My presentation of these options is not an endorsement of any particular option by myself or the administrative team of AOS 93.”
The first option would divide the school system into two units, with Jefferson remaining an independent district governed by its school committee and contracting administration through the central office.
The remaining six towns could condense into one modified RSU school district governed by one board. Details would be determined by towns, Johnston said, but Bristol, Nobleboro, and South Bristol’s school buildings could each offer prekindergarten through fourth grade for all six towns with GSB converted to a middle school for all six towns.
This RSU could be operated by one board with weighted votes and a weighted cost-sharing formula. Exploratory committees would determine these details.
“We’re not considering the RSU as it used to exist,” Johnston said at the AOS 93 Board meeting on Nov. 14. “… It would be remiss of me not to bring it to you and say that this has a lot of benefits.”
Cost-sharing and voting formulas have increased flexibility from the first version of the RSU introduced over 15 years ago, according to Johnston.
If voters choose this structure, the school system is projected to receive another $335,000 in state subsidy each year, offer prekindergarten to all towns, give students more extracurricular options, and keep all buildings open.
As presented, this proposal would fill all school buildings to about 90%, according to AOS 93 Business Manager Peter Nielsen. The setup would also minimize transportation costs from bus routes following conversations with the school system’s bus contractor, First Student.
The second option would keep both Jefferson and Nobleboro as independent districts while GSB remains the same and Bristol and South Bristol combine into a modified RSU.
Those two towns could then redistribute their student bodies between the two school buildings in the combination of their choice.
South Bristol School was built to house about 110 students and serves less than half of that number, and Johnston said conversations emphasized balancing low enrollment with a strong resident desire to keep the school open despite the cost.
“How they use the buildings is up to them,” Johnston said, stressing that administration is not recommending any building closures. The idea has to be brought to the table and ruled out to move ahead, she said.
According to the interlocal agreement between the seven towns that make up the AOS, a school can only be closed by the voters of the town or towns that operate it.
“The AOS School Committee and the voters of the AOS shall have no authority to close a school within a member school unit,” according to the agreement.
This second option would reduce some inefficiency for administrators and be a less drastic change, along with saving South Bristol $2 million per year if residents do choose to close the school, according to Johnston.
Both choices could combine the secondary school committees of GSB’s member towns with its K-8 committee, reducing three budgets from the central office’s workload.
Regardless of what path towns decide to take, Nielsen said administration also recently discovered Education Service Centers, which did not exist when the structure was formed.
These centers are member-owned cooperative extensions of the school unit, often for shared purchasing or services, that receive funding from the state for half the superintendent’s salary, a per student amount, and equipment purchases.
It could bring AOS 93 about another $250,000 a year. This option will also be brought to school committees at their next meetings.
Next, each member town’s school committee will discuss options at December meetings. Notices of intent must be filed with the DOE for approval and the town can then form a restructuring committee comprised of school committee members, municipal officers, and the public.
Johnston said each town could file notices for multiple options they wanted to explore. The notice describes intent to explore an option, rather than commitment to it.
For more information, go to aos93.org/page/strategic-vision-2025.