AOS 93 administrators are asking for ideas to restructure the school system and hope to have a top option by the end of the calendar year.
Administrators have launched a survey for public input that will be open through September and met with members of town select boards on Thursday, Sept. 14 to discuss restructuring. Superintendent Lynsey Johnston said that, because of the AOS system, detailed proposals could not be developed until her office has guidance from the school committees that direct employees.
Any changes would be put before voters in each town and require approval from the Maine Department of Education and the Legislature.
All school committees of member towns voted to approve the nonbinding exploration this spring after a presentation by the central office proposing simpler administration, lower costs, and educational benefits.
AOS 93 consists of Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro, and South Bristol. Currently, each of the five member schools is its own district, with towns sharing a central office.
Also known as the Central Lincoln County School System, AOS 93 replaced School Union 74 in 2009 to meet the requirements of then-Gov. John Baldacci’s school consolidation law.
Fifteen AOS systems were developed in Maine, according to Johnston, and nine have dissolved. Four of those remaining, including neighboring AOS 98, are looking into restructuring.
AOS 93 contains one community school district, Great Salt Bay, consisting of Bremen, Damariscotta, and Newcastle. Administrators said the state no longer allows the formation of new CSDs.
If they vote to restructure, towns could condense into small RSUs within the AOS or secede into single-school municipal districts, among other combinations. An experienced school restructuring consultant, Bill Stockmeyer, is working with administration to develop options.
AOS 93 Business Manager Peter Nielsen said the RSU, or regional school unit, has been improved by the state since 2009, unlike the AOS. In an RSU, the school district owns the buildings and is operated by one board of directors instead of individual town committees.
“They are not updated, contemporary structures,” he said of the AOS.
Nielsen expects AOS 93 will face two financial “cliffs” in the next decade, as buildings need more maintenance and federal pandemic relief funding ends.
The school buildings have an average age of 40, and in the next 10 years, all will need replacement or significant work, according to Nielsen.
“You can’t keep all five buildings open and save money,” he said.
Johnston said a combined district with higher involvement would make the system eligible for state funding for school replacement.
Members asked about costs per student at GSB, which serves three towns, and SBS, which serves one. Prekindergarten to 12th grade costs in South Bristol are $27,510 per student compared to $17,356 for GSB towns, Nielsen said after the meeting, noting that student costs are “apples to oranges” between the two schools.
In response to audience question Thursday, Johnston said the administration arm of the system is currently the least efficient, and the legal definition of an AOS limits what staff can do to reduce redundancies.
She meets with each town’s committee monthly, along with the AOS 93 committee.
The office manages 60 state and federal grants and 14 different budgets with 10 staff, double the number of employees in administration a decade ago.
“It’s a maze of crazy accounting that we do,” Nielsen said.
Nobleboro Select Board Chair Dick Spear said Thursday the AOS structure was chosen because towns did not want to give up ownership of their buildings.
Under state statute, a school board could transfer ownership of a closed school building back to a town.
“We’re a proud area,” fellow Nobleboro Select Board member Richard Powell said. He said residents were willing to fund schools because they belonged to the town and doubted they would do the same if it was part of a district.
Jefferson and Nobleboro representatives from both school committees and select boards have said they do not want to consider combining with other towns.
“I don’t see a huge amount of dramatic improvements that can be done,” Jefferson School Committee Chair Walter Greene-Morse said when the committee first considered the exploration in May. “I hope there are some that I’m missing.”
Johnston said Thursday that governing systems could have weighted voting formulas based on population and that savings would also be distributed by formula developed later in the process.
She suggested changes could be made in steps, with simpler items coming to voters first. Consolidating some bus runs could save about $77,000 annually, and changing all towns to K-12 committees rather than having separate secondary committees would eliminate three meeting schedules and budgets.
The existing schedule could place restructuring on the ballot in November 2024.
Several select board members agreed they would prefer to start with those two items, which have clear savings, before suggesting restructuring administration does not yet have savings projections for.
“Sometimes what we want is not what we can afford,” Newcastle Select Board Chair Karen Paz said.
Nielsen is working with the DOE to calculate how different options would affect state subsidies and is talking with its bus contractors about route changes.
“People are proving that this is OK,” Spear said about school costs, pointing out that budgets continue to be approved by voters. “You want the best education for each taxpayer’s dollar, and each town is going to be different.”
Johnston said administrators hope to hold open forums in each town for public input. She expects to have a top scenario narrowed down by the end of the year.
The survey is available on the AOS website, at its central offices in Damariscotta, and in town offices.
For more information or to take the survey, go to aos93.org.