AUGUSTA — Communities that want to withdraw from school districts formed in the last round of state-mandated consolidation are now allowed to begin the secession process.

In the area towns that are affected, however, residents are still studying their options.

Maine law requires that a municipality spend 30 months in a school district before attempting to leave.

Districts that formed under the state’s 2007 consolidation law first started operations on July 1, 2009, so they reached the 30-month threshold on Jan. 1 this year. As of that date, citizens can start gathering petition signatures to prompt a special election on withdrawal, the first step in a lengthy and complex process.

The town of Starks, which had joined with Madison-based Regional School Unit 59 several years before the consolidation law, began its withdrawal process in August 2010. Residents will vote on the final proposal on Tuesday.

In Monmouth, Richmond and Wiscasset, voters have voiced support for leaving their school districts in non-binding referenda, but people in each of the communities said this week that they are not aware of any petitions circulating so far.

“We’re able to do it legally now, but nothing has been legally done yet,” said Doug Smith, chairman of the Wiscasset Educational Research Panel. “We wanted to have some information out to the public.”

The panel has been meeting twice a month to analyze the pros and cons of alternatives to membership in Regional School Unit 12, which consists of eight towns and has its central office in Whitefield.

Smith said options being explored include the status quo; becoming part of an alternative organizational structure; combining Wiscasset High School and Wiscasset Middle School; closing the high school and paying tuition to send those students elsewhere; or closing all of Wiscasset’s schools and sending students elsewhere.

The panel’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 23, and its members are distributing their analysis through letters to the editor in local newspapers.

Smith said he has been in contact with three other towns that are circulating petitions, but he declined to identify them.

In Monmouth, where residents have a variety of complaints about RSU 2, the Board of Selectmen appointed an RSU 2 Review Committee to study the issue.

The chairman of the committee, Ed Zuis, said their report about Monmouth’s options will be presented to the select board on Jan. 25. The board has no role in initiating the withdrawal process.

“We are not endorsing any option,” Zuis said. “We’ve been working since August, and it’s very difficult to answer questions without putting opinion, but our committee is committed to doing that.”

Zuis and Town Manager Curt Lunt both said they were unaware of any petitions circulating in Monmouth.

In Richmond, selectmen considered forming a committee but decided to leave it up to residents instead.

Selectman Rose Beckwish said she has not heard about anyone in town organizing to inititate withdrawal or collecting signatures.

“I’m sure it will (happen) at some point, because I’ve heard the grumbling,” she said.

Anyone circulating a petition must collect signatures of 10 percent of the voters in the municipality who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

If a majority of voters approve the petition to withdraw in a special election, local officials must appoint a committee of four people from the municipality: a municipal officer, a “member of the general public,” a representative of the group that filed the peitition, and a school district board member.

The committee has 90 days to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the school district addressing provision of education, transportation, administration, financial commitments, union contracts, division of property and other issues.

Once the plan is certified by the education commissioner as complying with the law, there will be a second municipal election, in which two-thirds of the voters must approve the plan.

Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said it would be nearly impossible for a community to complete the withdrawal process in time for next school year. Although school starts in September, the fiscal year for school budgets begins July 1.

“It’s a detailed process, and it sets a high bar,” Connerty-Marin said. “The reason, of course, is you don’t want municipalities coming and going — going in and out of districts. That’s not beneficial to anybody.”

Even after planning is completed and voters approve an agreement, the transition would take considerable time and effort, Connerty-Marin said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

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