TRENTON — The Trenton Elementary School should withdraw from Alternative Organizational Structure 91 (AOS 91), according to the School Evaluation Options Committee (SEOC), which made the recommendation to the Board of Selectmen at its Dec. 29 meeting.
Additionally, the committee requested that “the Trenton School Board prepare a letter expressing a vote of no confidence with regard to Dr. Marc Gousse, superintendent [of] AOS 91,” according to a statement read by SEOC Chairwoman Susan Sargent.
On Wednesday, Gousse said that his performance is evaluated annually, including by school board members, and that, “I would stand on my record the last 5 years.”
“The Trenton school benefits significantly from being a member of the AOS,” he said, adding that the AOS benefits significantly, too.
The SEOC, which is comprised of Trenton residents, formed last year and researched four cost-saving options the school could implement after the group became concerned with rising school costs funded by taxpayers.
One of those options is withdrawal from the current school district.
On the rising school costs, specifically for special education, Gousse said he understood the community’s concerns.
“Those costs are not going to go away,” whether Trenton is part of AOS 91 or not, he said.
At the selectmen’s Dec. 15 meeting, Chairman Fred Ehrlenbach asked the SEOC to present to the selectmen what it would be recommending to the School Board.
In the written statement, Sargent said, “We as a committee have researched all aspects of Trenton’s membership in AOS 91 and after a final discussion of our options available to our own town, we unanimously recommend that Trenton withdraw from AOS 91.”
She stated that “the School Board should determine if the Trenton Elementary School is to withdraw from AOS 91 to stand alone as a municipal school unit or a union of towns.”
Of the reasoning for the recommendation, she said, “Dr. Gousse has not been honest and forthright with Trenton. He has overstated the monetary value of extracurricular activities in discussing Trenton’s school budget when the town desired to cut school spending.”
Reached on Wednesday, Trenton School Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Bonilla said, “That’s really too bad,” regarding the request by the SEOC for a vote of no confidence in the superintendent. She said she did not have further comments without reading the minutes of the meeting.
Sargent said that “the SEOC would have benefited from working with School Board members, however, this interaction was discouraged by the superintendent.”
“It is our opinion that Trenton is seen as a source of funding to fulfill the superintendent’s desired organizational growth and not as an equal member among other AOS towns,” she read. “Withdrawal from AOS 91 places control of our school budget, curriculum and all meaningful decisions back into the hands of our School Board and our citizens.”
AOS 91, also known as the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, includes Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Trenton, Swan’s Island, Cranberry Isles and Frenchboro. Member towns have their own school boards but share a superintendent and central office staff.
Sargent recommended that the Trenton School Board seek legal advice concerning a possible withdrawal and said the SEOC would seek “in-depth discussions” with the superintendent serving Lamoine and Hancock for decision-making guidance in the withdrawal process.
Debate and a lengthy discussion ensued regarding whether the SEOC is a committee within the Board of Selectmen or independent of it.
Selectman Daniel Monahan said, “I personally am not in favor of these recommendations at this time. I don’t want this to go to the School Board with the Select Board’s blessing.”
He moved that “the SEOC take no further action on this issue and do not present it to the School Board.”
He said that the issue should be looked into by the elected School Board and not influenced by the Board of Selectmen.
The motion did not pass, with only Monahan and Selectman Rachel Noble in favor.
“The SEOC was set up as independent from the [Board of Selectmen]. The [Board of Selectmen] has no input into anything that the SEOC did, so from my perspective, it’s an independent body. If they want to take something to the [School Board] with recommendations, that is entirely their right,” said Ehrlenbach. He said the selectmen did not endorse the committee or its decision.
“At a certain level, if we were endorsing them to provide a recommendation to us, then at a certain level, they are responding to us,” said Noble. “I think the Select Board did set up the special committee.”
Noble continued asking questions to clarify the SEOC’s role and relationship to the selectmen.
Noble then summarized, “[The SEOC does not] answer to the Select Board; they don’t receive any guidance from us, nor do they answer, nor do they come together or disband via any guidance of ours.”
“I think that’s accurate,” said Selectman John Bennett.
Bennett is a member of the SEOC but did not participate in the group’s meeting the night prior, when the present members decided on their withdrawal recommendation.
Other business at the selectmen’s meeting included the re-election of Ehrlenbach as board chairman and the election of Bennett as vice chairman.
The board also tabled a decision regarding the sale of a property on Bayside Road and discussed looking into options for broadband expansion.
The Fire Department gave a report, indicating the department had received 112 calls throughout the year, up from 105 last year. The department saw the most calls in 2017, with 129.
Monahan made a motion that the selectmen only meet virtually until the end of January, as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the state. He was the only vote in support of the motion. Meetings are currently available for the public to attend in-person and online via Zoom.