STARKS — The town now faces its biggest hurdle yet in its attempt to secede from the school district: a two-thirds majority vote at the polls.

After a public hearing Thursday night attended by a small but vocal group of residents, Starks residents will vote Jan. 10 whether to leave School Administrative District 59, which also serves Madison, Athens and Brighton Plantation. Two thirds must approve the move for it to become official.

“I would like to express my thanks to the committee, all of you, your expertise, your time, your patience, and just sticking with it. I’m glad to be a part of Starks right now. We’re going to make history,” resident Dorothy Fayen told the withdrawal committee.

As required by law, Starks and SAD 59 have developed a withdrawal agreement, and Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen has signed it. Thursday’s public hearing, attended by about 10 people, was the next step in the process that would have Starks join Mt. Blue Regional School District, based in Farmington, effective July 1.

When the withdrawal process began a year and a half ago, residents filled the community center’s gymnasium and came to selectmen meetings to share their opinions. Though town polls and surveys have showed that about 85 percent of residents support withdrawing, Ernie Hilton, chairman of the withdrawal committee, said people still need to vote.

“I would have been a little more heartened if there had been more people here tonight,” he said. “We really need to get people out here to vote.”

Committee member Kerry Hebert added, “We need a big vote. I don’t care up or down, we need the whole town voting.”

Residents have cited cost savings and additional educational opportunities as reasons to switch districts.

Research shows that academic achievement depends more on where students come from than the amount of money spent on them or their class size, Paul Frederic, a selectman and committee member, told the group.

“We’re essentially changing the place from whence our children come from. That’s really what this is all about I suppose, changing the place our children come from, by switching school districts. We’re going to see if some of this academic research really works in the applied world,” Frederic said, to laughter.

The withdrawal proposal allows Starks students to remain in Madison schools and continue in Madison until they graduate if they wish. The year after withdrawal, however, any Starks student entering kindergarten would go to Farmington.

“A number of parents expressed that they wanted choice, and I think we’ve actually accomplished that to a degree — more than we hoped for,” Hebert said.

It’s anticipated that about 20 of the approximately 70 students from Starks would continue in Madison, Hilton said. The reduction in students, however, would cause SAD 59 to lose several hundred thousand dollars.

In terms of transportation, SAD 59 has agreed to pick up students at the Starks Community Center and bus them to school in Madison, picking up other students along the way. When it becomes unprofitable for SAD 59, as an increasing number of Starks students graduate, the district will stop busing them.

Starks estimates it will save between $70,000 and $100,000 per year in tax dollars if it withdraws from SAD 59.

“If we were in RSU 9 right now we would have saved $90,000 this year,” Hebert said, referring to Regional School Unit 9, another name for the Mt. Blue district. The estimated savings was if 50 Starks students attended Mt. Blue.

The savings the first year of switching would not be that large, however, because for half of the town’s fiscal year it would have been in SAD 59. It would also have to pay some debt service to SAD 59, plus its set share of the superintendent’s salary.

Hilton said he believes the switch would be relatively smooth because SAD 59 owns no property in Starks.

“This is very a clean break,” Hilton said. “There’s no staff out here. There’s no personal property.”

He said at least five other towns in Maine have contacted Starks, wanting to know how they, too, can withdraw from their districts.

The polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Jan. 10, at the community center. Absentee ballots are already being collected.

The withdrawal committee has begun unofficial negotiations with Mt. Blue. If the vote is affirmative Jan. 10, an official agreement will be formed, which will require approval by the towns in the Mt. Blue district and Starks.

It’s anticipated that the addition would infuse Mt. Blue with close to $500,000, without having to add staff, since students would be spread out over 13 grades.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

 

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