September 14, 2012

Regional School Unit 12 mix-ups frustrate parents, officials

Previous superintendent, Augusta school official blamed for back-to-school problems

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

WHITEFIELD -- Two mixups in Regional School Unit 12 have families scrambling to make arrangements for their students and district officials wondering how to pay for the solutions.

click image to enlarge

Emily Cote, left, and her mother Malinda Caron stand at the intersection of the North Hunts Meadow and Cooper Roads on Friday afternoon. It used to be the bus stop where last year Cote caught the bus from Whitefield to Cony High School.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Staff photo by Joe Phelan Malinda Caron

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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On the first day of school, students in Whitefield and Windsor were left waiting for buses that never arrived to take them to Cony High School. RSU 12 is still figuring out how to transport the students for the rest of the year.

Also, two families drove their seniors five hours to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone last month, only to find later that RSU 12 would not pay the $7,950 room-and-board fee as it had in the past.

Both problems apparently resulted from a lack of communication or crossed wires among former Superintendent Greg Potter, school board members, parents and, in the case of the busing, interim Superintendent Alan Hawkins and employees of the Augusta School Department.

At the school board meeting Thursday night, Whitefield board member Malinda Caron expressed frustration about the busing situation, which affects her daughter, Cony sophomore Emily Cote.

"What I'm upset about is why the ball was dropped," Caron said, adding that Potter and Augusta school employees both appeared to be at fault. "I'm wondering what other balls have been dropped."

The busing situation started in the spring, when Augusta Superintendent Cornelia Brown and Business Manager Karla Miller realized that Augusta had been providing free transportation to Whitefield and Windsor students, although they were not obligated to do so.

While Chelsea, another RSU 12 town, has a contract requiring Augusta to transport students from Chelsea School to Cony, busing for Windsor and Whitefield students was based on what Hawkins characterized as a "handshake agreement."

Miller does not know how long Augusta has provided free busing for Whitefield and Windsor students. She estimates that it costs at least $8,000 per year in Augusta's contract with First Student.

Brown and Miller decided in May to end busing for those students, and Miller said she notified either Potter or his assistant about it.

Potter, who left RSU 12 for the superintendent's post at Newport-based RSU 19, said he does not recall any such communication.

"I don't believe the office ever received anything like that," he said Friday. "If there was discussion, it was related to the Chelsea contract running out after next year."

Sometime after Hawkins took over as interim superintendent on July 1, Miller called the RSU 12 office again and talked to Hawkins about the need to notify parents.

"He told me that he spoke with someone at Cony and thought that Cony should send the letter; but again, it's their students," Miller said. "We don't know which ones of their students are choosing to come to Augusta every year."

Hawkins said he called Cony High School, and a woman in the office said they would distribute a letter to parents. He thought that was enough.

"I have learned, and I should have remembered, you shouldn't assume anything," Hawkins said.

Students in Whitefield and Windsor gathered at last year's bus stops on the first day of school Aug. 29, but no buses arrived. Hawkins said he does not know how many of the students ever made it to school.

Since then, RSU 12's one spare bus and a driver Hawkins pressed into service have been transporting about a half-dozen Whitefield students to and from school. Hawkins said he is looking for a more economical solution, such as a van. First Student told him they would charge $176 a day to bus the students.

This year 14 students from Whitefield, seven from Windsor and one from Somerville are attending Cony. There will be a meeting for parents at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Windsor School to discuss some alternatives, and Hawkins hopes to bring something to the school board in October.

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