WISCASSET — A group of residents who want the town to withdraw from Regional School Unit 12 has gathered enough signatures to send the issue to referendum this year.

Town Clerk Christine Wolfe said she certified that the Wiscasset Educational Research Panel had cleared the requirement of 167 petition signatures for a referendum, which is the first step in the long, complex process for a town to secede from a regional school unit.

Wolfe said voters may decide the issue at Town Meeting in June.

With the signatures certified, group Chairman Doug Smith said the petition will be presented to the Board of Selectmen at its meeting on Feb. 21, if the matter can get on the agenda in time.

The group had little trouble gathering enough signatures — 211 of them in less than two weeks.

Smith said he expects voters to favor starting the withdrawal process. He pointed to the results of a nonbinding referendum in November, in which residents voted 917-220 in favor of exploring withdrawal from the school district.

“The nonbinding vote turned out three times the normal number of voters in an off-year (election), and 80 percent of them voted to look at other alternatives,” Smith said.

Complaints raised by Wiscasset residents include paying what they see as an outsized share of the school district’s local taxes; being the only town in the district without school choice; a perceived decline in educational quality; and a loss of local control, particularly in the school board’s decision last year to cease use of the Redskins mascot.

If a majority of voters favor withdrawing, local officials must appoint a committee of four people from Wiscasset: a municipal officer, a member of the general public, a representative of the Wiscasset Educational Research Panel and a school district board member.

The committee would have 90 days to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with RSU 12, addressing education, transportation, administration, financial commitments, union contracts, division of property and other issues.

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

“The voters will have a final say,” Smith said.

The Wiscasset Educational Research Panel met several times to explore the pros and cons of various school district structures, and Smith said most group members believe that forming an alternative organizational structure, or AOS, with nearby towns would be the best option for Wiscasset.

“You retain local control, and local control means that you control the budget, you control the curriculum,” Smith said. “And then with an AOS you share the central office expenses with some other towns. You pick up some efficiencies, which is what this (school) consolidation was supposed to be about.”

Smith said his group has finished its research and will take a hiatus from any activity until the spring, when it hopes to host at least one informational meeting for voters.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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