This fall RSU 20 officials hosted 11 forums on the proposed school reorganization concept, and at each of them, residents blasted the idea of closing elementary schools and combining the middle and high schools.

The board later backed away from scheduling a non-binding referendum for Nov. 8, which would have asked voters if they supported the reorganization proposal that RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux first presented to the board May 17. As part of the school reorganization proposal, the district would close many outlying elementary schools, and would consolidate its two middle schools and two high schools into one of each.

Aside from the fact that the public largely expressed displeasure with the concept, the board also struggled with the idea that voters might vote in the affirmative based solely on the $1.8 million estimated cost savings. Also, Mailloux said, there was some debate about how the referendum question should be written.

But business as usual in RSU 20 cannot continue without a passing a big price increase onto the taxpayer, said Mailloux, and members of the district finance committee recently made recommendations to the board that reflect the need to make major changes in the way the district operates.

At the committee’s regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 25, Finance Committee Chairman Gerry Reid presented those recommendations in a handout that he distributed to the full board for review and discussion.

In the handout, Reid noted that due to a combination of steadily declining enrollments, fewer state and federal dollars, and some buildings operating at as low as 50 percent capacity, the district should consider some kind of reorganization. Reid stated that the board should “embrace two action steps as soon as possible to respectfully consider and respond to those who are uncomfortable with the May 17, 2011 concept.”

“First, any board member with a serious commitment to an alternative concept should present it in an organized way to the full board for a full discussion,” stated Reid. “Second, we should ask the superintendent to present to the full board a phased or sequenced implementation plan for the May 17, 2011 reorganization concept.”

Reid further stated that it may be better to implement such a big change over time, rather than rush into anything.

“The reason to do this is to recognize that there are always unknowns or unintended consequences to bold decisions,” stated Reid. “To mitigate these risks and to learn, it might make sense to implement reorganization in sequenced steps rather than one single action.”

Speaking Tuesday, Nov. 8, Mailloux said Reid and his fellow committee members have been seeking ways to reduce costs throughout the district in recent months, and are taking a proactive approach to what is expected to be a difficult budget building season.

“We’re trying to give a realistic outlook to our financial situation,” said Mailloux. “And when you look at it from a realistic perspective, you see there’s a big increase coming. Gerry [Reid] is reminding people that reorganization is certainly a viable plan that would address that.”

Mailloux acknowledged that the public did not support the reorganization concept in its present form, but said the concept can serve as a building block to help the board come up with alternatives for accomplishing long-term savings.

“Really what’s got to happen is we’ve got to go through all of these discussions, and we’ve got to have a long-term plan,” said Mailloux. “… We need a plan that looks five, 10 years down the road, that has a long-term impact while also minimizing the impact on the kids.”

Reid’s presentation showed that the current $32.8 million budget covers the cost of educating 2,555 students, which comes in at $12,838 per student. Local taxpayers foot 58.4 percent of that bill, 75 percent of which pays for staff salaries and benefits.

Reid noted that the district’s “core economic challenge” is declining population, which means a smaller amount of state revenue coming in to the district. The state’s population of youths, or infants to 14-year-olds, dropped by 23,000 (9.5 percent) from 2000-2010, according to the U.S. Census, and Maine public school enrollment decreased by 10,038 (5 percent) from 2006-2010. In RSU 20, Reid stated 172 fewer students enrolled from 2006-2010, and enrollments are projected to continue declining by up to 2 percent annually.

And, Reid said, the district currently has more staff and physical space than it needs to support that student population — three buildings are operating at about 50 percent utilization, and six of 13 buildings have enrollments of 83-111 students.

“This situation will grow worse based upon the population decline trend,” stated Reid.

Reid also outlined some of the financial hits that the district can expect to take for the 2012-2013 budget, including a $1 million loss of MaineCare funds, $150,000 worth of non-routine facilities maintenance and $655,355 figured in for 2-percent cost inflation.

“We spent quite a bit of time going over these figures,” said Mailloux. “… We figured in a small percentage to account for the inflation factor. You’ve got to put that in too, because it’s reality; the cost of salaries have gone up, the cost of fuel has gone up,  food, and supplies.”

Reid’s presentation also considered other potential financial impacts, such as an estimated $1.3 million cost to RSU 20 that would occur if Frankfort residents are successful in their effort to exit the district to join Hampden-based SAD 22.

Definite negative financial impacts for the district, stated Reid, come in at $2.6 million (an 8 percent increase over the current budget and an estimated 13.6 percent overall tax increase), while the “definite plus possible” negative impacts total $4.7 million (an increase of 14 percent over the current operating budget and a 24.6 percent tax increase).

Tuesday, Mailloux said there are no immediate plans to recommend any specific schools for closure, and that Reid’s presentation served as a way to keep the discussions rolling on how best to cut costs while still considering how those parings might impact students.

“We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things, and hopefully we can come up with a long-range plan,” said Mailloux.