A unified district

School officials around Mount Desert Island have been discussing the possibility of consolidating business operations into a single entity. Doing so makes sense for a variety of reasons. It is a logical next step in a process that began several years ago with the standardization of salaries and job descriptions across all district schools. The ultimate goal is a single district for all schools in the Mount Desert Island area.

As the search begins for a Superintendent Howard Colter replacement, officials realize that finding an applicant willing to grapple with five different elementary school budgets, a consolidated high school budget and budgets for several small offshore schools is going to be a daunting task.

The existing structure also means the superintendent must deal with nine school boards, nine different budget formats and the need to prepare for public meetings in that same number of communities.

In 2016, schools must begin greater compliance with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The rules vary based on an employer’s number of full-time equivalents. As employers, school districts with less than 50 full-time equivalents face one set of rules and those with more than 50 employees face another. If all school employees on the island were a single budgetary unit, there would be one set of regulations for all.

In January, the definition of what qualifies as a small business for health insurance rating purposes will change. Before this change, insurance costs for school districts with 50 or fewer employees were based on a community rating plan drawn from the cost of claims in a larger community. Larger employers’ rates were based on the claims experience of its own employees. On Jan. 1, employers of up to 100 full-time equivalents will have rates based on community experience. In some communities, that could mean major changes in the cost of health insurance rates. Districts with predominantly younger and healthier employees actually may end up paying more. Consolidating business operations would result in just one system of health insurance offerings and could result in lower costs.

And it would allow for more streamlined collective bargaining when the teacher contract comes up for renewal. One bargaining unit would strengthen the hands of teachers as well.

A single school board for the entire district would be the ultimate consolidation aim. That would be especially helpful when it comes to heating oil, bus contracts and facilities planning. A formula similar to that currently in place to fund the high school might be useful.

When folks talk about consolidating municipal services, they usually discuss consolidation in areas such as joint purchasing, and police and fire department cooperation. But, by far, the largest single expenditure in any community involves education.

Consolidating and standardizing the financial side of operating our area schools is an excellent place to start.

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