State OKs 11-district regional school service center

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AUGUSTA — The state Department of Education has approved a regional service center that includes 11 southern Maine school districts.

The Greater Sebago Educational Alliance Regional Service Center includes public schools in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Brunswick, Gorham, Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport, Durham, Pownal), Regional School Unit 6/School Administrative District 6 (Buxton, Hollis, Standish, Limington, Frye Island), Regional School Unit 14 (Windham, Raymond) and School Administrative District 15 (Gray, New Gloucester).

According to an announcement Monday from the DOE, the Greater Sebago Alliance is one of 12 approved by Education Commissioner Robert G. Hasson Jr. as part of the department’s EMBRACE Regionalization Initiative.

The 12 centers represent 84 school administrative units and 56 percent of Maine’s students. The department also said the process is “ongoing,” and it expects an opportunity for a second round of applications in the next fiscal year.

The centers are defined as nonprofit, multi-service agencies formed “for the purpose of serving its member units’ needs”; increasing access to “high-quality, engaging” student programming; increasing effectiveness through technical assistance; providing regionally shared services to districts, and implementing grants received for state initiatives.

Services shared by the districts in the Greater Sebago Education Alliance will include joint purchasing of food supplies; joint professional development offerings; joint substitute teacher recruiting, training, and diversity recruitment processes, and joint English Language Learners intake processes.

The application states the center will also serve “as an incubator for new regional programs and services.”

In addition to potential cost savings, districts in regional service centers will also receive a “Regionalization and Efficiency Assistance Allocation” – more money –as part of General Purpose Aid from the state for being involved.

And, while the districts involved in the Greater Sebago Education Alliance stated on their application they do not anticipate “major savings will be realized” through the collaborative effort, those involved do believe “the economy of scale” will improve the quality of services provided and provide efficiencies.

According to the Greater Sebago Education Alliance application, the center will be governed by a board of directors that includes the superintendents of each of the districts involved, or their designee.

SAD 6 Superintendent Paul Penna also said his district is the fiscal agent for the group as the center decides on a director.

The proposed operational date is July 1, 2018.

The next step for each district involved is to receive an affirmative vote on a state-mandated interlocal agreement from their respective School Boards, followed by town approval via a local vote. Regional service centers that receive final approval from Hasson will begin serving their membership in the 2018-19 academic year.

Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said the Greater Sebago Education Alliance is an expansion of the Sebago Educational Alliance, a coalition of public schools including SAD 6, RSU 14, Scarborough, Gorham and Westbrook, which Gorham has been involved in for 15 years.

Perry said the Gorham School Committee will discuss the interlocal agreement in a workshop this month, and vote on it in June.

At this point, she added, Gorham’s focus in the regional service center will be purchasing food and food-related supplies, recruiting substitute teachers and professional development.

RSU 5 Superintendent Becky Foley said her district’s School Board will be discussing the interlocal agreement at its May 9 meeting. If it passes, local voters will have the opportunity to ratify the decision in November.

During Phase I of the application process in November, RSU 5 was included on an initial application with Brunswick and SAD 75 (Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham), to form a different regional service center, called the “Mid-Coast Collaborative.” After SAD 75 withdrew its proposal, however, Brunswick and RSU 5 opted to join the larger service center.

SAD 15 Superintendent Craig King said he thinks there is “a lot of mutually beneficial potential” for the collaboration, and it could be helpful with the district’s upcoming need to take on child development services for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The RSU 14 School Board already approved the necessary interlocal agreement on April 25. Superintendent Sanford Prince said the vote authorizes submitting the agreement to the Commissioner for approval.

He added RSU 14 will receive revenue of more than $55,500 for joining the center.

In the center’s first year of operation, Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia said his district, like Gorham schools, is interested in participating in joint food purchasing, recruitment and training of substitute teachers, recruitment of professional staff, and professional development.

Lancia said Westbrook schools would also explore intake for ELL students, “but that would likely be in the second year at the earliest.”

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said the district is hopeful about the possibilities surrounding collaborations for services, but it is going forward cautiously.

“I think it will be really good for South Portland,” Kunin said, adding municipalities have had interlocal agreements for agencies such as fire departments through mutual aid, but this is a new education concept.

Kunin also said there are structures to create efficiencies with services, but also protections if collaboration does not serve a district.

Cape Elizabeth’s interim superintendent, Howard Colter, said his district’s board will vote on the interlocal agreement in September, and he is “excited” about the collaborative effort.

Like RSU 5 and Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough schools also submitted a preliminary application last fall to form their own regional service center, called the Scarborough Cape Alliance, but both ultimately decided to join the Greater Sebago Education Alliance.

“We decided we want to go with this group because locally it’s more our neighborhood. There’s multiple opportunities in this that we find appealing,” Colter said.

He added the benefits of regionalizing services go beyond monetary perks.

“The districts that are working together have had a lot of great ideas,” Colter said. “… It’s a cost savings, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s a way to be more congenial and cooperative with one another, and I really like that.”

Staff writers Matthew Junker, Michael Kelly, Juliette Laaka, Bob Lowell and Jocelyn Van Saun contributed to this report. Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

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