STARKS — The town will secede from the school district.

In a historic decision, more than a two-thirds majority of voters on Tuesday supported leaving School Administrative District 59, which also serves Madison, Athens and Brighton Plantation.

The final vote tallied Tuesday night was 164-27, with 86 percent in favor, Jennifer Zweig Hebert, town clerk and school board member, said.

The vote is “the last step and the first phase of the transition,” First Selectman Paul Frederic said, and it comes after some residents have worked for a year-and-a-half to research, plan and develop a secession agreement.

“This has been a long process, and we’re not done yet,” Frederic said.

The town will draw up an official plan to send Starks students to Mt. Blue Regional School District, based in Farmington. The towns in that district will eventually have to vote to accept Starks.

Starks is the 13th town in Maine in the last 30 years to secede from its school district, according to data provided by David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

Starks joins Dennistown Plantation, The Forks Plantation, Grand Isle, Prentiss Plantation, Fayette, Bridgewater, East Machias, Lake View Plantation, Lowell, Seboeis Plantation, Caratunk and West Forks Plantation in their successful secession efforts.

Frederic, who spoke before the votes were tallied, said an affirmative decision would have a substantial impact now and over time as Starks residents become more geared toward the university town of Farmington.

In the short-term, he said, current students and their families will have to decide whether to remain in Madison or make the change to Mt. Blue. In the long term, Starks residents will likely spend more time in Farmington and use more of its services.

Tuesday’s decision also means SAD 59 is down one town and hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Superintendent Todd LeRoy, who joined SAD 59 after Starks decided to attempt to leave, has said the anticipated funding cut could result in staff reductions.

If Starks negotiates a successful agreement with Mt. Blue, Starks students would be able to remain in Madison schools and continue in Madison until they graduate. If the town joins Mt. Blue and students switch next fall, the following year any Starks student entering kindergarten would be required to go to Farmington.

Officials estimate about 50 of 70 Starks students would switch to Mt. Blue and infuse the Farmington district with about $500,000.

Voters speak

Residents leaving Starks Community Center on Tuesday offered a variety of opinions on the idea of secession.

Ken Laux said he took the vote seriously and attended local meetings to weigh the pros and cons. He eventually settled on voting in favor of the withdrawal.

“I hope it was a wise choice. I made that choice based on the facts and figures presented by selectmen,” he said. He added that the bottom line should be about what’s best for students’ education, and he surmised that the move to Farmington schools would be beneficial.

Donna Clark came to the same conclusion and voted to withdraw. “I think it’s a good idea because it will help the children get a better education,” she said.

The Starks group that looked into withdrawing appraised the academics at both Mt. Blue and SAD 59 and concluded that Mt. Blue has a history of higher SAT scores, graduation rates and advanced placement course scores, as well as more academic and vocational course offerings and extracurricular activities.

But some residents expressed doubt that Mt. Blue has more educational offerings.

Douglas Drake said he thinks students get a better education in Madison because the district has fewer students. Drake said he attended school in Mt. Blue and believes he would have gotten a better education in a smaller school with a more close-knit environment.

Some residents pointed to the condition of the roads between Starks and Farmington in the winter.

Though it’s a slightly longer drive to Farmington than Madison, the distance is not what worried them. Rather, it was the curves, hills, bumpiness and remoteness.

“I voted no because in the wintertime it’s terrible to try to drive to Farmington, so I think it’s going to put the kids in more danger,” resident Peggy Patterson said.

Norman Cole agreed. He voted no because of the road issue, and because he didn’t see a large difference between the districts.

“I don’t think we’re going to be better off,” he said.

Frederic agreed that the roads to Farmington are worse than the one to Madison but said every decision comes with some negative aspects. He said he believes the positives in switching districts outweigh the negatives.

Ernie Hilton, chairman of the withdrawal committee, said Starks’ efforts have drawn attention from at least five other towns, who have called seeking information about how to secede from their districts.

“It is a very difficult process, but I think Starks has a rather unique set of circumstances that allows it to be a winning prospect for us,” he said.

Connerty-Marin said prior to the vote that the legislature intended for secession to be difficult, in order to prevent districts from breaking up unnecessarily.

“The history shows this doesn’t happen often,” he said.

As voting progressed throughout the day, Hebert said she was seeing a relatively strong turnout for a local election. In the end, about 37 percent of Starks’ 520 registered voters cast ballots.

“We’ve tried very hard to impress upon people the need to vote on this,” she said.

In the Nov. 8 elections last fall, 157 people, or 30 percent of local voters, turned out at the polls.

The presidential election in 2008 turned out 61 percent of town voters, and the 2010 state elections saw a 49 percent turnout.

Mt. Blue’s communities are Chesterville, Farmington, Industry, New Sharon, New Vineyard, Temple, Vienna, Weld and Wilton

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]