Two-thirds of Wiscasset voters decided Tuesday to drop affiliation with their school district, taking with them the district’s only high school.
The town will leave Somerville-based Regional School Unit 12 next year after a 613—280 vote. The district now must find at least one high school that will agree to educate any student from the towns remaining in the RSU, which serves a wide swath of territory in three counties from Palermo to Westport Island, two of three towns also considering withdrawing.
In another Tuesday vote, more than 70 percent of Fayette voters decided to start the process of getting the town out of Alternative Organizational Structure 97, which the town founded with Winthrop in 2010.
Now Wiscasset will have to pay RSU 12 $1.5 million to settle contractual obligations, and it would cost an estimated $1.4 million in additional educational spending to run the schools at a status-quo level in 2014-15. In an accompanying Tuesday vote, the town also voted to borrow the money to pay the district.
Voting in Wiscasset at mid-morning, Anthony Vitti, 49, said it’s worth the cost for the town to have sole control over operation and funding of its schools.
“I just felt that I want the town to kind of take care of its own,” Vitti said. “Our property taxes are going up, and we’re paying into a general fund that we’re not getting as much out of.”
Wiscasset is contributing $6.1 million to RSU 12’s $26.4 million budget this year. It costs about $7.5 million to operate Wiscasset’s three schools and pay a share of districtwide costs, according to RSU officials.
Lois Kwantz, 65, said she voted against withdrawal because it would be too expensive.
“I did not believe that the town as a whole was capable of making the hard choices that would need to be made to cover the costs or to reduce the costs of what it would take for us to run the schools on our own,” she said.
Officials both within RSU 12 and in Wiscasset have talked about closing one of the town’s schools, which are all under capacity. The biggest savings would come from closing Wiscasset High School and sending students elsewhere, Kwantz said, but she believes the town would not do that.
Kwantz said she likes the concept of RSUs, but RSU 12 was flawed from the start because of high school choice. Other than Alna and Westport Island, the towns send very few students to Wiscasset High School, which would be more than 20 miles away for students in the northern part of the district.
As a result, Kwantz said, there’s no unity within the RSU, and the high school’s enrollment has continued to fall. Three other RSU 12 towns — Palermo, Westport Island and Windsor — are developing withdrawal plans. The school district also includes Alna, Chelsea, Somerville and Whitefield.
According to the Department of Education, nine municipalities have withdrawn from RSUs successfully since 2008, and eight withdrawal efforts failed on the final vote. In seven of those failed attempts, including Monmouth’s attempt to leave RSU 2 in June, voter turnout for the referendum was not high enough. The Bangor Daily News reported Tuesday that Ellsworth also voted to withdraw from its district.
If a withdrawal agreement fails because of low turnout, and the “yes” vote for the agreement is less than 60 percent, the municipality is barred from seeking withdrawal again for two years.
The 206—80 vote in Fayette only directs the town’s School Committee to form another committee to negotiate an agreement to withdraw from AOS 97. The agreement would be subject to approval by the AOS school board, the education commissioner and, finally, the voters of Fayette.
Karen Rogers, 57, said she voted “yes” because it’s still a proposal with several steps to go before it becomes final.
“I think they can gather more information on what the real pros and cons are,” she said.
Rogers said the AOS hasn’t produced the savings that were predicted. She believes collaboration is necessary for such a small school to provide services efficiently, but that can be accomplished regardless of whether Fayette is part of a larger school district.
Fayette Central School has 75 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. The town pays tuition to send older students elsewhere, and most attend Maranacook schools in Readfield or Spruce Mountain schools in Jay.
Fayette’s school is dwarfed in enrollment and budget by Winthrop’s three schools. Winthrop pays 85 percent of the budget for AOS 97, which provides administration for both town’s schools and controls 85 percent of the weighted vote on the AOS school board.
Supporters of withdrawal argue that Fayette should have more say on matters such as budget and administration.
“I feel strongly that this town should have its own control,” said Ellie Andrews, 65, who voted in Fayette on Tuesday afternoon. “Being part of the AOS, we have 15 percent of the vote on anything. That means we have no control.”
Staff Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.