Wiscasset panels frame panel to study schools’ future

Sun, 07/11/2021 - 6:30pm

    The committee Wiscasset voters nodded last month to study the schools’ future is near forming. Thursday night, July 8, the selectboard, school committee, Town Manager Dennis Simmons and Superintendent of Schools Terry Wood planned the panel’s makeup and how to have it do what voters asked.

    Applications are at the town office and wiscasset.org, under resources, then forms and documents, then search “application.” 

    Selectmen plan to fill the committee seats by mid-August. Participants in the workshop in the municipal building’s meeting room mulled how many members to have from the school community, to avoid bias or the look of bias toward the schools, yet have people who know the school system.

    They settled on having a selectman, two school committee members, a teacher, a parent of a current student, a Wiscasset Area Chamber of Commerce member, three at-large members and, as non-voting members, Wood and a student. Selectmen’s Chair Sarah Whitfield said about the only vote the committee would probably take would be to pass along its recommendations.

    Simmons predicted more than three residents will seek the at-large seats. Participants did not make a seat for a budget committee member because, they observed, just getting members for the budget committee is hard. (Selectmen later discussed possibly asking voters to end the budget committee or shrink it from nine seats to five or seven.)

    June 8, voters OK’d selectmen to form an ad hoc committee “to study the (school department’s) future ... including all options for expansion, consolidation, or continuing the status quo.” The public wants to know how to make the school system more affordable, whether that is by tuitioning out the high school grades or bringing in more students, Selectman Pam Dunning said.

    Selectman Kim Andersson said outsourcing grades would not mean big savings, for a number of reasons. “It’s a really complicated formula, and there’s transportation,” Andersson said. Whitfield said she did not think school choice would make much financial difference, “but ... I don’t think we’ve ever crunched those numbers officially, so I think that could be helpful.” It could settle the issue and help people better understand the schools and get behind them, she said.

    Participants discussed having the committee survey residents for their feelings on the schools, to help show non-financial impacts. Whitfield said the study committee’s work could aid the work of the town’s comprehensive plan committee she chairs.

    Whitfield suggested the selectboard and school committee consider having the study committee develop a strategic plan for the schools. The school department is already working on one, Wood said. “I don’t think this committee should be ...,” she said. Whitfield explained she had not known.

    Wood wondered what the committee will be doing. The answers the ballot question sought will come from numbers the department provides, she said. “So it’s kind of like, you don’t have a committee working on that when the people that are giving you the information are on the committee. So I’m not understanding how you plan on doing it.”

    Dunning told her, the ad hoc committee would talk with the school committee “and help build a plan with you.” Voters said for the committee to study, not to plan, Selectman Dusty Jones said.

    The study’s timing is “only going to hurt” the school department’s shot at attracting other towns, according to school committee member Michelle Blagdon. “Dresden and Richmond are calling us, which is a positive thing. And to have a group ... saying we might outsource our high school, well that defeats it,” she said.

    Whitfield and Dunning emphasized collaboration with the school department. “We need to not look like we’re fighting with each other, because we’re not,” Dunning said. “I think this could be a very positive thing for us to work together and get this done, so that people get the answer ...”

    “They just want transparency,” school committee member Indriani Demers said. “Exactly,” Dunning said.

    Also July 8, Simmons handed selectmen Maine Municipal Association’s sample remote meeting policy to review. Simmons said the state has said, barring an emergency, board members must take part in-person, but the board can set a policy for others to attend remotely. He thinks it would increase public participation, and the town has most of the equipment, he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea ... The question is, do you want to allow it. You don’t have to.” Selectmen will read it and get back to Simmons.