Approval of a consolidation plan for Windham and Raymond schools is just the first step in merging the two districts, officials said as those two towns prepare to vote on the proposal Nov. 4.

In order to pass, the plan, which includes formulas for sharing costs among the two towns as well as rules of governance for the new school unit that would be formed, must be approved by voters in each town. If approved, the new school unit will start July 1, 2009.

If the plan is approved, a new school board, consisting of representatives from Windham and Raymond, would be elected. Only then would new policies be put in place, said Tom Bartell of Windham, a member of the school consolidation committee.

“It really is just setting the foundation for consolidation,” Bartell said. “It’s not setting out any of the real details. We’re not trying to dictate educational policies or class sizes or transportation policies or any of that.”

While the new school board debates policy, Bartell said, residents will have plenty of opportunities to voice their opinions and worries. Residents should not worry that because the school system would then encompass two towns they would not have the same access to or influence over elected school officials, he said.

“People will still have their say through their elected school board,” he said. “I think the same safeguards are there, so I think it will work.”

Windham and Raymond officials have been working on consolidation for around a year, even before Gov. Baldacci signed into law the bill that made consolidation for most school districts mandatory. Discussions initially included the city of Westbrook, but adding that district was rejected by Windham and Raymond committee members in the spring.

While Windham has more than 2,500 students and thus was not obligated to consolidate under the law, officials thought a merger could help cut costs and improve programs. The Raymond School District is required to consolidate, and board members felt merging with Windham made sense, given its proximity to Raymond and the number of Raymond students who go to Windham High School.

The benefits of consolidation include the enhancement of programs through shared staffing and the use of collective resources, said district superintendents Sanford Prince of Windham and Sandra Caldwell of Raymond. Cost savings are likely to come through the consolidation of services and the elimination of duplicative programs and positions, they said.

Bartell is not sure consolidation will lead to outright cost savings, but it will likely slow the growth of the budget, he said. Like other people close to the plan, he thinks schools in both towns would benefit from sharing ideas and best practices.

Once they are under one educational roof, Raymond and Windham can learn from each others’ strengths, Windham Superintendent Prince said. For example, Raymond’s full-day kindergarten could be expanded to Windham, he said. Schools in Raymond and Windham could also share teachers for specialty courses in areas like language and mathematics, Caldwell said.

“You’re really going to get the best out of both,” said Bartell.

Over time, the two towns could eliminate duplicative positions by sharing food service, maintenance and transportation operations, among others, Prince said. Web site management and professional development could also be shared, Caldwell said, and a consolidated unit would have greater purchasing power for paper and other materials. The new school unit would hire a new superintendent as well.

Current contracts will be honored, and the new school unit would renegotiate the contracts as they expire. Therefore, some duplicative positions would not be eliminated for a few years. Prince’s contract runs through June 30, 2011, as do the contracts of Windham’s assistant superintendent, director of curriculum, and director of student services. Caldwell’s contract is set to expire June 30, 2009.

The votes on the new school board would be heavily weighted toward Windham. Using population percentage, Windham was given 810 total votes to be distributed among its board representatives while Raymond was given 192 votes. The representatives would be elected to staggered terms of either one, two or three years.

Under the plan, debt established prior to the formation of the new unit will remain the obligation of the town that incurred the debt, with the exception of debt on Windham High School, which will be shared by the two towns on the basis of student count. Future debt will also be shared by the communities.

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