Residents of nearly 20 communities across Maine are facing long negotiations and emotional votes to dissolve school districts formed three years ago under a state mandate.
The flurry of withdrawals was not unexpected by state officials, who heard for years from people who were upset with what they considered forced consolidation.
Now, after the required 30 months in their consolidated districts, communities have the option to leave.
The desire to leave a regional school unit is most often driven by concerns about money and local control.
The 2007 law was an attempt to cut administrative costs by merging the state’s 290 school districts into 80 regional units. Some school districts — including large ones and schools that were considered high-performing — had to do little to comply with the law, while others struggled to find communities with which to form a new district.
From the beginning, some people were unhappy with the prospect of joining larger school units, especially under the threat of penalties. School districts that didn’t comply were told they would see a 50 percent reduction in system administration allocations — that meant $105 less per student — and less favorable consideration for funding of school construction projects.
Those threats never sat well with Ron Michaud, a former Saco mayor and now a member of the Regional School Unit 23 Board of Directors. He is a member of the committee that’s working to craft the city’s separation from the unit it formed with Dayton and Old Orchard Beach.
When legislative committees considered changes to the law to allow withdrawal, he went to Augusta to testify that communities should be given another chance to consider RSU arrangements with the penalties removed.
“I felt strongly the democratic system should have let people re-vote. … We don’t know if people voted (to form RSUs) because of the threat of penalty,” Michaud said. “It always comes down to two things: money and control. … In Maine, people like to know they have the ability to control their own destiny.”
With the option to withdraw, communities from York County to Washington County are reconsidering their school districts’ structure.
Four towns — Arundel, Glenburn, Veazie and Frankfort — have scheduled votes for Nov. 6 on withdrawal agreements approved by the Department of Education. If approved, the agreements will take effect for the next fiscal year.
Earlier this year, Starks and Portage Lake completed withdrawals from school units that existed before the reorganization law. Seventeen other communities are seeking to withdraw from a total of eight regional school units, from Arundel in York County to Cherryfield in Washington County.
Durham will start that process if voters decide Nov. 6 to form a committee to dissolve its union with RSU 5. North Yarmouth voters will decide next month whether they want to break a 46-year bond with the neighboring town of Cumberland. North Yarmouth was not subject to the 30-month requirement because its district existed before the reorganization law.
The withdrawal process — similar to a divorce in that it divides assets and debt and dissolves a union — is long and emotional for many communities because residents have a vested interest in keeping costs under control and providing the best education possible.
“In the end, you hope there’s a balance of emotion and honest analysis of what it all means,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education.
The requirement that RSU arrangements last 30 months was established so towns wouldn’t decide to separate soon after districts were formed, Connerty-Marin said.
“They need to at least give it a chance,” he said. “There should be a way for (towns) to get out when it doesn’t make sense, but it shouldn’t be easy.”
While state law outlines the withdrawal process clearly, there is no requirement that communities look at the financial implications of leaving a regional school unit, said Jim Rier, deputy education commissioner.
Towns generally will provide some kind of analysis for residents who vote on agreements negotiated by withdrawal committees and school district representatives, he said.
When and what type of information is given to voters depends on the community.
In Durham, a committee was formed to analyze the financial and educational implications of leaving RSU 5 before residents decide in November whether the town will proceed with withdrawal.
In other communities, such as Arundel, a financial analysis was done simultaneously with the development of the withdrawal agreement.
After receiving a petition seeking a ballot question to create a withdrawal committee, Durham selectmen formed the Durham Educational Exploration Committee to look at what it would mean to leave RSU 5, the district it formed with Freeport and Pownal. The idea was to provide as much information as possible to voters before the withdrawal vote Nov. 6, said Kevin Nadeau, chairman of the exploration committee.
Milt Simon, the Durham resident who circulated the withdrawal petition, said he fully supported the selectmen’s decision to slow the process and form an exploration committee. That, he said, is a good example for other communities.
“A lot of people signed the petition thinking that it would start the exploration process,” he said, “when in fact the petition was going to start the withdrawal process.”
Simon said he wanted the town to take advantage of the withdrawal opportunity laid out in state law to revisit the decision to join the district. He is concerned about losing local control, but Nadeau said another force behind the withdrawal effort seems to be tax increases in recent years.
The exploration committee compared the cost of staying in the RSU for the 2012-13 school year and what the town would pay as a stand-alone district with a kindergarten-through-grade 8 school that paid to send high school students to other districts.
“The preliminary finding of that is it would be significantly more expensive to withdraw than stay in the RSU,” Nadeau said. “When I say ‘significant,’ I mean over $1 million a year.”
The committee is finalizing its report for a presentation at a public hearing Oct. 22 at Durham Community School.
Providing that information to voters before November’s vote is essential because, once there is a vote to withdraw, the withdrawal committee can develop only a plan to leave, Nadeau said.
“The way the law is, it is very risky to go into the withdrawal-committee phase without having some idea of what you might be looking at on the other side,” he said.
Arundel — the first southern Maine town to have a withdrawal agreement approved by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen — will hold a public hearing Oct. 10 on withdrawing from RSU 21, the district it formed with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport.
That will be the first opportunity for residents to comment on the financial and educational implications of leaving the district. A financial analysis developed for the town by Planning Decisions was presented to selectmen for the first time Oct. 2.
Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of RSU 21, said the lack of a financial analysis before now did not affect withdrawal negotiations because the committee was focused only on developing an educational plan for Arundel students and dividing assets and debt, as required by state law.
How quickly the withdrawal process moves once initiated is a concern for Karl Carrigan, of Saco, a member of Community Actively Researching Education 23, a group formed by parents to monitor withdrawal efforts in Saco and Dayton. Both communities are looking to leave RSU 23, which also includes Old Orchard Beach.
Carrigan says some residents who signed the withdrawal petition did so thinking it initiated a feasibility study, not the withdrawal process.
Dayton and Saco are both looking at the effect of leaving as withdrawal agreements are developed.
“It’s high-stakes. To approach that without all the data or to say we’ll cross that bridge when we withdraw is just not acceptable,” he said. “If the work had been done ahead, the process would be more amicable. It perhaps could have been a much quicker process.”
The Dayton Withdrawal Committee started meeting in September to craft its agreement to leave RSU 23. Officials are looking at the financial feasibility of leaving the district as part of the process, said Gerry Taylor, a Dayton selectman who’s on the withdrawal committee. The town has hired Skip Cushman, a former RSU 23 board member, to evaluate the financial and educational aspects of leaving the district.
“If it’s not financially feasible to leave, we may decide not to do that,” Taylor said. “We are evaluating all options. It’s very early in the process.”
Finalizing the deal
Rier, the deputy education commissioner, said one of the biggest challenges in the withdrawal process can come with the final vote.
After a withdrawal agreement is developed and approved by Bowen, a public hearing must be held 10 days before the final vote on the agreement negotiated by the committee and school officials.
The threshold to approve the withdrawal agreement is high. It must be approved by a simple majority, but the total votes cast must be more than 50 percent of the total number of people who voted in the previous gubernatorial election.
Because of the requirement for high voter turnout, communities may aim to have their final vote during a presidential election, like the four agreements scheduled for votes next month, Rier said.
Department of Education officials urge communities to take their time when considering withdrawal and not rush into forming a withdrawal committee until they are ready.
“This is a serious consideration. It is one that requires time and agreement,” Rier said. “(Withdrawal) has serious long-term consequences and needs to be well thought through.”