BAR HARBOR — As currently structured, the Mount Desert Island Regional School System is cumbersome, inefficient and an absolute bear to manage, according to a committee of school board members.
Of course, school administrators and board members have known that for years. But now the committee has recommended a specific alternative – the Regional School Unit (RSU) model.
Nearly everything about the way the individual schools currently operate would remain the same. In each town, the school principal would propose and the elected school committee would adopt an annual budget.
But instead of the budget being voted on at the town’s annual Town Meeting, each school’s budget would be folded into a single district budget, which residents of all the member towns would have an opportunity to vote on at a district-wide meeting.
Currently, the school system’s central office has to manage and report to the state on 10 school budgets – one for each of the eight towns in the school district, one for the high school and one for the central office.
“Our goal is to achieve greater consolidation of functions while retaining a degree of local control at the elementary school level,” said school board member Ingrid Kachmar, who chaired the committee that has recommended the RSU model.
She said the consolidation of budgets would create greater efficiency and likely would save money over time.
“I think that by making this change, we are not going to find ourselves in a situation where we’re having to hire more staff in the central office,” she said.
“We all know that Nancy [Thurlow, the school district’s business manager] does the job of two people. When she decides to leave, there is no one person replacing her.
“We all know that [Superintendent] Marc [Gousse] spends probably 12 to 14 nights a month at meetings,” Kachmar said. “What person is going to want to take that job?”
(Gousse recently announced his plan to retire no later than June 30 of next year.)
“So, the savings are going to be in not having to hire additional staff to do the work of the district,” Kachmar said. “We need to understand that it’s going to cost us more to continue to do business the way we are. And we’re going to continue to burn out people who work for us.”
Like his predecessors, Gousse attends nearly every meeting of every local school committee, and each spring he and Thurlow attend every Town Meeting to explain and answer questions about the local school budgets.
The only other significant change that switching to the RSU structure would bring about is in the area of employment. Local school committees would continue to recommend the hiring of personnel. But teachers and support staff would be employees of the district, not the individual schools.
“This change would allow teachers to pursue positions in other schools in the district without losing their seniority,” Kachmar said. “It would allow for position changes with greater ease and make possible better allocation of staff resources.
“Our committee feels strongly that we can create a framework for this change with the help of teachers and staff that protects everyone’s interests and improves the district.”
School board member John Izenour asked what would happen if the proposed school district board were to override the budget recommendation of a local school committee.
“If for some reason the regional board were to tell Southwest Harbor, for example, that it has to cut $100,000 out of its budget – which I don’t think would happen because of the collaborative nature of how we do things – the town of Southwest Harbor could choose to raise that money outside of this process,” Kachmar said. “So, you could do things that you want to do in your local school.”
In addition to Kachmar, the committee that recommended the switch to the RSU structure included school board members Gary Burr of Trenton, Keri Hayes, Tremont, Lilea Simis, Bar Harbor, Tammy Tripler, Swan’s Island, and former board member Charlie Wray, Mount Desert.
“We will not dive deeper into this until we have a sense of how you all want to move forward, if you want to move forward,” Kachmar told the school board.
Her committee has recommended that, if the school board favors the proposed change, then it should form a restructuring planning committee to work out the details of a transition to the RSU organizational model.
“I would like for the board to make a decision in the next month or two so the reorganization planning committee could start moving forward,” Kachmar said.
The board took no action on Monday, and board member Kristie Losquadro suggested the board schedule a workshop to ask questions and talk about if and how to proceed.
Former Superintendent Rob Liebow, who left in 2012 to lead a school district in Massachusetts, told the Islander in an interview at the time that the superintendent’s job here is “a killer.”
“It’s a massive structure that requires the superintendent to juggle multiple issues in multiple places over and over again,” he said. “The job of superintendent anywhere is very demanding. But the multiple, countless meetings can wear the best person down over time.
“For someone looking at it from outside, it is not an attractive structure.”
Howard Colter, who both preceded and followed Liebow as superintendent, told the school board in 2012, “If the (superintendent’s) position is going to be as it’s always been, I think you will have fewer top candidates. I think there needs to be some talk about how to make it more streamlined, efficient and manageable.”