MADISON — School Administrative District 59 must now determine how to recover from the loss of one of its four towns after Starks’ overwhelming vote to secede last week.

“The fact that they made the choice to leave the school district is sad in and of itself,” Superintendent Todd LeRoy said. “But we have to pick up the pieces and move from this point forward.”

The largest challenge facing the district’s remaining communities of Madison, Athens and Brighton Plantation is to fill the financial hole Starks will leave behind.

LeRoy estimated the district will lose between $400,000 and $600,000, which is about 5 percent of this year’s budget.

“The biggest thing that’s going to impact us is going to be the financial aspect,” LeRoy said. “We’ve been holding off on our (union) negotiations with all our employee groups because we had to know what was going to happen with Starks.”

It’s possible the district will cut positions. “We’re going to have to look at every aspect of our budget,” he said.

Last Tuesday, after a year and a half of researching and planning, Starks residents voted 164-27 to secede. The 86 percent approval was far more than the 67 percent needed to withdraw.

Before the vote, Starks had begun working informally to develop a plan to join Farmington-based Mt. Blue Regional School District, RSU 9, by July 1. Now it can begin official negotiations.

“I think one of the things that’s helped make this successful is our ability to think seriously about joining RSU 9. If that had not been an option I’m not sure I would have supported this process,” Starks First Selectman Paul Frederic said. “We were lucky to have a neighbor next door.”

Members of the town’s reorganization committee said they believe the merging process will now move relatively quickly because Starks has a small amount of students, and there are no personnel or property issues to settle.

Starks is currently considered a separate school administrative unit under state law, even though its children will continue the year in Madison. To become part of Mt. Blue, each of that district’s communities, plus Starks, must eventually vote to add in the new town.

Mt. Blue serves Chesterville, Farmington, Industry, New Sharon, New Vineyard, Temple, Vienna, Weld and Wilton.

If Mt. Blue voters reject Starks, the town would have to tuition its students, “but I would be very positive about being able to work it out with RSU 9,” said James Rier, deputy commissioner for the Maine Department of Education.

Only about 50 of the approximately 70 students in Starks are estimated to make the switch, and Mt. Blue estimates it can add them without hiring new teachers, since they will be spread across all grades.

Starks is expected to contribute roughly $500,000 to the district.

“This whole process has had risks, not the least of which was getting the plan completed,” Rier said. But “this particular group has done its homework.”

Specifically, he said, the town made sure it had a large base of support, researched the financial and educational differences between several districts and communicated extensively with Mt. Blue.

Some Starks residents were upset after School Administrative District 59 voted to close the town’s school in February of 2010, but residents didn’t secede because they were angry, Rier said; they examined the financial and educational differences between the available districts and made a decision.

“I use it as an example every time I get a call about withdrawing,” Rier said. “The process that Starks has used has been an exemplary one.”

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.

LeRoy said Mt. Blue is larger and might be able to afford more programs and classes than his Madison district, but he doesn’t believe it offers greater educational opportunities.

“We have one of the finest staffs in the area. The lack of permanent leadership here has put us in a position where we haven’t grown as much as we wanted to,” he said. But “if you watch the Madison schools in the next few years you’re going to see some very large changes that are very much on the cutting edge of education.”

Though he is disappointed about Starks, “we’re not going to gripe and go away. We’re going to be here, and we’re going to do the best with what we’ve got.”

Bob Hagopian, chairman of Madison selectmen, agreed.

“It’s a shame that they’re leaving, and I just wish them the best,” he said. “If that’s what they want, and they think it’s better for the community, then that’s what they have to do.”

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

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