School committees across AOS 93 started weighing options to restructure the Central Lincoln County School System last week and closed the door on a regionalizing choice that would have created a six-town middle school and two new prekindergarten programs.
Instead, towns may consider a legal change without direct student impact that could increase state subsidy by more than half a million dollars annually while retaining more local control.
AOS 93 administrators proposed Strategic Vision 2025, a plan to explore restructuring, in April, citing inefficiencies in operations, expenses, and education they believe is inherent to the AOS structure.
Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro, and South Bristol formed AOS 93 in 2009, replacing 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 services through the AOS 93 central office.
After public input, meetings, and legal consultation, administrators presented two possible restructuring scenarios in November. The first would have left Jefferson as an independent district with the other six towns condensing into a modified RSU district governed by one board. GSB’s building could have been converted into a regional middle school with Bristol, Nobleboro, and South Bristol’s school buildings all providing prekindergarten through fourth grade.
A second option would leave Jefferson and Nobleboro independent, with GSB remaining the same and Bristol and South Bristol possibly combining into one district.
For a town to consider any change, its school committee must vote to file a notice of intent to do so with the Maine Department of Education, followed by the formation of a town committee to determine specific details for a public vote in November 2024.
The Nobleboro School Committee, the first to evaluate the options, voted Nov. 29 not to explore regionalizing. Without agreement from all six towns, that initial proposal cannot move forward, according to AOS 93 Superintendent Lynsey Johnston.
“Residents in these towns have become accustomed to a level of local control that would be too difficult to abandon,” Nobleboro resident and GSB teacher Chris Coleman said at the Nov. 30 meeting of the Great Salt Bay School Committee.
Coleman, also president of the Damariscotta Area Teachers Association, said he supported the second option presented.
The Great Salt Bay School Committee and the three town committees within it all voted Nov. 30 to explore combining their K-8 and secondary school committees into one per town, matching all other towns in AOS 93.
Members also voted to explore forming an education service center, an interlocal agreement structurally identical to the AOS that would bring in another $250,000 in state subsidy annually.
“You could take the AOS interlocal agreement, white out ‘AOS’ on the top, and write ‘ESC,’” Johnston said.
The options that remain for all towns would not affect student experience, according to Johnston, with changes focused on the operational level. Depending on the arrangement towns choose, the school system could receive up to $600,000 additional state subsidy each year, she said.
Students could still benefit, according to Johnston, new state subsidy allowing schools to continue offering support services that began with federal pandemic assistance funds coming to an end next year.
In response to audience question Nov. 30, Johnston said other area schools outside AOS 93 could join the education service center, and an interlocal agreement would include a clause for additions.
Walter Greene-Morse, chair of the Jefferson School Committee, said he was personally in favor of the education service center concept when Johnston presented the proposed change at the committee’s meeting on Monday, Dec. 4. However, he also voiced concern that the wide range of services that such centers are able to offer could complicate administration in the district.
“If we start trying to cherry-pick all of the services that each of the towns want, it’s going to be extremely complicated for everyone,” potentially counteracting the goal of streamlining operations in the district, Greene-Morse said.
Johnston suggested the committee convened to oversee a transition to the education service center model could prevent that outcome by deciding what services to offer in the initial agreement.
“We have yet to find any real drawbacks with this system,” Johnston said.
AOS 93 Business Manager Peter Nielsen said he also recommended pursuing the educational service center model.
“We want freedom to operate regional programs,” he said on Dec. 4. “We want to make sure that local control is maintained in each of our districts. And we want a governance structure that solves some of the things we haven’t been able to in the past. I really believe that we have the opportunity to create that (by becoming an ESC),” he said.
At its Tuesday, Dec. 5 meeting, the South Bristol School Committee tabled any vote to explore any potential options and file its notices of intent with the state until its January meeting.
Sara Mitchell, committee chair, said the additional month would give members time to gather more opinions and collect potential paths to explore.
Before public discussion opened, Johnston said closing South Bristol School was off the table, and reiterated it was her job to present the options, not to endorse any. The initial presentation listed savings possible for the town if it chose to consolidate with Bristol and either close its school or split students between the two buildings.
“Closing of South Bristol is off the table now,” Johnston said.
Several residents got up to express their concern about altering the school’s current state of operations.
Mitchell said that while consolidating the two schools seemed unlikely, she believed this was an opportunity to discuss all the ways the schools could work together.
“There are opportunities between the schools that we can come up with to make both schools stronger, for the students and the staff,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think we will combine them, but maybe it’ll start a conversation where we can do little stuff together.”
The Bristol School Committee meets Wednesday, Dec. 6 and will be the last to discuss filing options.
Exploratory committees including school committee members, town officials, and residents will likely be formed by individual towns next year.
(Reporters Molly Rains, Johnathan Riley, and Elizabeth Walztoni contributed to this article.)