Regional School Unit 16 Superintendent Tina Meserve makes it clear she thinks the consolidated school district is working for Minot, Mechanic Falls and Poland: Students are doing better academically, school and town officials work together, and taxpayers seem happy that the budget has been kept in check.

“One of the biggest reasons it’s gone well in RSU 16 is because it has reduced costs to taxpayers,” she said. “It’s probably pretty unusual five years later to have a budget $1 million less than before consolidation.”

While many consolidated districts did not pass along administrative savings to taxpayers – overall per pupil spending did not drop, on average – RSU 16 did use savings to reduce the tax burden.

Regional School Unit 16 was created in 2009 as a result of the state consolidation law, although the towns of Minot, Mechanic Falls and Poland had previously shared a central office administration as a partly consolidated union. Under the consolidation law, the towns took the remaining steps toward consolidation and gave up their independent school boards so the RSU could form as a separate government entity.

The district is made up of three similarly-sized towns outside Lewiston in rural Androscoggin County. It includes five schools and 1,774 students.

After school officials worked through the basic tasks of setting up the district – adopting uniform rules and dealing with teacher contracts, for example – they set their sights on the school budget.

In 2007-08, the three towns spent $21.8 million on education. Two years later, during the first year of the RSU, overall education spending was reduced to $18.2 million to address the diminishing subsidy from the state and the economic downturn. Officials wanted to keep the budget in line with the capacity of local taxpayers during the economic downturn, according to the district’s five-year strategic plan.

To achieve those savings, there were some staff cuts at the high school level and the central office staff was reduced by five positions, Meserve said. In spite of the fiscal challenges, the school district has had some success, she said. The district developed curriculum, assessments and academic expectations that were consistent across the district and now offers new programs, including one focused on providing better services for autistic students.

“We’re all on the same page. That has raised expectations and resulted in increased academic achievement,” Meserve said.

The graduation rate has increased from about 80 percent pre-consolidation to nearly 89 percent in 2011. Post-secondary school enrollment has increased from 51 percent in 2005 to 85 percent in 2012.

Meserve said she has heard of some concern in Minot about the loss of control over what happens in the town’s elementary school, but “it hasn’t caused significant problems.” She believes that’s because selectmen and school board members from all three communities are committed to working together to make the RSU work.

“I do think it’s a challenge to go from a small, locally controlled school to a larger district,” she said. “I think having board members from all three towns really committed to that has made a difference for us.”