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WORKING TO FIND A BALANCE
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BY SCOTT MONROE
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 09/21/2009

BY SCOTT MONROE

Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- On a recent weekday, Eric Haley found out that a $20,000 rural small school grant had been awarded to Winslow's public schools.

That's good news, he said, but he had no idea what the grant was for.

Haley is the superintendent for Alternative Organizational Structure 92, the new school system that includes Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro. Before the consolidation, Haley was superintendent of Waterville public schools.

The Winslow grant was filed before Haley took charge of the three partner communities, and is just one example of how Haley and school officials are trying to get a handle on -- and familiarize themselves with -- a bigger and more complex system.

"Everything, in most cases, is tripled and in some cases quadrupled. We have about 4,000 students instead of 2,000, and we've doubled our staff," Haley said, noting that he also has several school boards to report to. "It can be confusing."

Under the consolidation agreement, the three communities share transportation, special-education and central-office expenses, while retaining their own school boards, budgets, debt and programs.

The consolidation allows the three communities to comply with state law, but critics of the merger have feared that the new central office, of which Haley is the head, would become too powerful and dilute the local decision-making authority of each "member unit."

Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro residents in June approved a $9.4 million budget for the AOS.

Haley concedes that the administration of the AOS amounts to a constant, and difficult, balancing act: finding savings and pooling resources, while allowing each community to retain its own identity and autonomy. Although "we're trying to homogenize" the schools' financial and data systems, Haley said, "they're all really good schools, and that's what makes it work."

All three school systems have a combined 750 full-time-equivalent employees, of which 198 are considered part of the shared AOS budget.

'Much like a school union'

Recently, Haley won approval from the AOS board -- comprised of school board members from each town -- to consolidate director-level positions.

Barbara Bonnell started July 1 as the new director of food services for all three schools; she used to be the assistant director for Waterville schools. Because Bonnell was promoted to the director's position, and others who left food-service positions at the schools were not replaced, the system will save at least $70,000 under the new arrangement, Haley said.

Earl Coombs, a member of the Winslow School Committee and an AOS board member, said the food-service director is a benefit for Winslow, which didn't have such a position before.

But there have been disagreements on other fronts. The AOS recently hired a director of technology, Will Bachman, who will oversee technology issues among the three schools. Bachman previously served Waterville schools.

Coombs said he voted against the technology director appointment, because he objected to the process of not conducting a wider search for a candidate.

"Technology is not, per se, an AOS function," Coombs said, adding that technology should be overseen by each community.

In addition, Haley and others supported a recent plan to merge the three teachers' unions into one, making it easier for the AOS administration to negotiate employee contracts with a single bargaining unit.

But the first union to vote on the plan, the Winslow Education Association, rejected the merger in a 56-41 vote during the first week of September, according to union President Mike Thurston.

"Winslow has been in a school union for a long time (prior to the AOS system), and we have bargained separately from China and Vassalboro for a long time, and I think our membership saw no reason to change that set-up," Thurston said. "An AOS is much like a school union, and there weren't enough compelling reasons for our members to make that change (to one union)."

But the AOS model appears to be saving money, even though school officials didn't think that would happen during the first year of operation, Haley said. Now, the system is on track to save at least $200,000 in personnel expenses, he said.

Business as usual

For Haley, being superintendent of schools in three communities has come at a price. He is stretched "a lot thinner" than before, and "it's taking its toll."

"I don't talk with parents much anymore; I'm lucky if I can talk with teachers now. I'm at the administration level," Haley said. And that's difficult to deal with, he said, because "what I loved was getting into classrooms. To me, there's something very special about seeing kids arrive in the morning and leave in the afternoon. ... I'm missing that now, dealing mostly with finances and politics."

The biggest challenge so far has been merging the three accounting systems, said Kevin Levasseur, chairman of the Vassalboro School Committee.

"Trying to merge them into one takes quite a substantial amount of time," Levasseur said.

Otherwise, Vassalboro school officials are generally comfortable with the AOS setup, which Levasseur said is similar to the school union of which Vassalboro used to be a member. Under a union, Vassalboro was used to sharing positions such as food-service director and school superintendent, he said.

"Our former chair, Lori Fowle, said an AOS is a union on steroids, and that's basically what it is right now," Levasseur said. "I don't see it as a big change from a union; it's pretty much business as usual."

Coombs said that, "considering the hurdles" the new school system has faced, "things have been going quite smoothly."

For Winslow, "it's quite a change from the way things have operated in the past, so it's not surprising there are some issues," he said. "The main concern I'm aware of is the allocation of expenses for transportation, which places a heavy burden on Vassalboro, and we're in the process of looking at that."

Frederick Denico, a new member of the Vassalboro School Committee, said he thinks that Haley and the new AOS administration "got a tough job and they're trying their best."

"It's a tough job, to shift gears and get this stuff lined up," Denico said. "It's just getting started. I think we're in good hands."

Scott Monroe -- 861-9253

smonroe@centralmaine.com

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