BAR HARBOR — Eight years ago, when the state mandated the consolidation of school districts, Mount Desert Island school officials persuaded the Legislature to approve a governance model in which local communities retained a high degree of control over their schools.
Now, MDI Regional School System (MDIRSS) board members and administrators are questioning whether that model is really the best, and they are exploring alternatives.
The school system currently operates as an “alternative organizational structure” (AOS) in which each of the nine schools – eight elementary schools and MDI High – is largely autonomous, with its own elected board and voter-approved budget.
The MDIRSS central office, headed by the superintendent, provides administrative, financial and other services to all of the schools in the district, and the MDIRSS board establishes common policies.
A study group that the board created last year identified one of the major advantages of the current structure as community “pride, ownership, identity, control [and] buy-in.”
The study group also determined that the decentralized structure presents a number of challenges. One is that the system’s business manager must manage 10 different budgets – for nine schools and the central office – and each budget has “idiosyncrasies and nuances.”
The superintendent must attend 10 different board meetings each month, three of which are on the outer islands. Those meetings, plus eight town meetings each spring, take an enormous amount of the superintendent’s time.
The study group found that under the current school system structure, there is a disparity in funding: “Since money flows to the schools based on tax base, some schools get more resources per youth to meet their needs.”
And the study group found that the current school structure “makes it very difficult to share staff or other resources across schools.”
The system also is rife with redundancy. “Policy adoption, budget development, audits, grants, state reports all need to be done up to nine different times and ways,” the study group reported.
The group recommended increasing the authority of the AOS board by centralizing hiring, transportation and special education, along with other changes.
No one is using the word “dysfunctional” to describe the existing organizational structure, but some believe it is not sustainable in the long run.
Consideration of possible alternatives has re-arisen – this time with some sense of urgency – because some school board members worry that the problems inherent in the existing system might deter highly qualified candidates from applying to succeed Superintendent Howard Colter. He plans to retire at the end of the school year.
Board member burnout and the difficulty of finding qualified people to run also are concerns. Now, people who are elected to serve on their local school committees also serve on the school system board. And those representing the four MDI towns serve on the high school board, as well.
On Monday, the AOS board heard a presentation on other organizational structures from Bruce Smith of the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, which works for a number of school districts in Maine.
He said one option would be to replace the AOS with a “regional school unit” (RSU). In that model, there are no separate boards for each school, but a single board that governs all of the schools in the system.
“Some RSUs are doing quite well, and they have seen a lot of advantages, both financial and educational,” Smith said.
He also acknowledged that a few RSUs have broken apart because some member towns felt they weren’t being treated fairly.
Another option, Smith said, would be to retain the AOS structure but to make the AOS the employer of all personnel in the system. Currently, teachers and staff at each of the nine schools work for those schools.
Changing that, Smith said, “would shift to the AOS the decision of who is going to be employed in your schools. It would also shift your budgets and payroll to the AOS.”
He said the local school boards “wouldn’t have all that much left.”
“You would still own the buildings and the budget for maintaining them.”
In the end, Smith said, “Education is a service that’s done by people. And whoever employs the people is really the one who’s in charge. That would make the AOS board pretty much in charge.”
Transitioning to either an RSU model or single-employer model would require voter approval, Smith said.
A third option he discussed, which would address only some of the current concerns, would be to negotiate teacher and support staff contracts on an AOS-wide basis. That is sort of the way it’s done now. A panel of AOS board members negotiates with representatives of the teachers’ associations at all of the schools.
But this year, the teachers at Mount Desert Elementary decided to negotiate directly with that school’s board. And when the contract negotiated for all of the other schools was presented to the teachers for approval, a majority of teachers at MDI High and Trenton Elementary voted no. The two sides ultimately reached an agreement.
Smith said that with mandatory system-wide bargaining, both the individual schools and their unionized employees would have to be willing to make “a sort of parallel concession to local control.”
“Local boards would no longer have veto power over the agreement, nor would the employees in any particular school.”
Charlie Wray, chairman of the AOS board, said the various options for restructuring the school system would be a discussion item on the agenda for the board’s November meeting.