MONMOUTH — Leaving Regional School Unit 2 would likely take months to complete, could deliver a substantial financial blow and would jeopardize the town’s chances for a new middle school.

Those are some of the findings of a six-month study conducted by committee appointed by selectmen to explore the impact of withdrawing from RSU 2 — which also serves Hallowell, Dresden, Farmingdale and Richmond — and reorganizing with other communities in an alternative organizational structure.

The committee submitted its 28-page report to selectmen during Wednesday’s meeting.

“The final document will answer many people’s questions and allow the readers to form their own opinions,” said Ed Zuis, chairman of the Monmouth Fact Finding Committee. “A lot of questions require speculation. What would have happened if we had not joined the RSU? We could not answer that.”

Zuis said the committee members labored to maintain objectivity. While the report states the implications of both leaving or staying with the RSU, it does not make a recommendation on which is preferable.

“I had very strong opinions going into this,” said committee Co-Chairwoman Tammy Allard. “Some of them have stayed the same, but some of them were altered.”

Monmouth schools operated independently until 2009, when it joined RSU 2 as part of the Maine Department of Education’s state-wide consolidation effort. Residents have balked at decisions made by the regional school board — perhaps most notably its decision to eliminate Monmouth Academy’s industrial arts program.

More than 70 percent of the 650 residents who took part in a June vote supported exploring leaving the school district. Selectmen formed the committee in response to that vote and the group has met regularly since August.

“Our whole desire was to make sure the people in town had enough information to make decisions on their own,” said Selectman Timothy McDonald.

Monmouth does not meet the minimum enrollment threshold of 1,200 students to form an independent regional school unit, so it must stay with RSU 2 or withdraw and join forces with other communities in an alternative organizational structure, called an AOS. The most likely partner would be AOS 97, which includes Winthrop and Fayette.

While an RSU and an AOS have similarities — such as a consolidated central office and a central board to deal with administrative budget issues — an AOS allows individual communities much greater latitude in running their schools. Properties turned over to RSU 2 during the consolidation process would revert to Monmouth’s control under an AOS and the town could make decisions about curriculum and programs, such as reviving industrial arts or whether to continue with the standards based educational model imposed by the RSU this year.

While restoring a measure of local control would undoubtedly appeal to a significant number of Monmouth residents, it would come at a potentially significant cost. Monmouth Middle School’s desirable spot on the Department of Education’s new construction priority list would likely be included in that fallout.

Last month, the State Department of Education bumped the middle school up to third on the state’s priority list. RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds, who attended Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting, said the school will likely be replaced within the next five years.

But the state would likely scrap the middle school project if Monmouth leaves RSU 2.

“In summary, there is a significant risk that the Department of Education will take away Monmouth’s priority,” town attorney Quinn Collins said in a written opinion. “If that is the case, we could launch a legal challenge at additional cost.”

Collins wrote Monmouth “should consider whether withdrawal from the RSU is worth the loss of that priority.”

‘Cost could be substantial’

In addition to losing a new school, the town would likely have to fork over a significant amount of money just to leave RSU 2. One part of the multi-step withdrawal process requires towns to negotiate reimbursements to the RSU for real estate and other costs, such technology or facility upgrades, incurred by the RSU during its management period.

“The cost could be substantial and cannot be precisely determined until the withdrawal agreement has been fully written, approved by the education commissioner, and subjected to public hearings,” said Attorney Clifford Goodall, whose withdrawal memo to Richmond selectmen is cited in the report prepared by the committee. “Additional costs that need to be considered, on an estimated basis, would also include the cost to join another RSU (or AOS).”

It is unclear exactly how much of that expense would be realized in savings under an AOS agreement — cost comparisons between RSU and AOS alliances are complicated by the disparity of the structures — but the committee ultimately agreed there would be a “small” savings incurred by joining AOS 97.

“It’s speculation to determine what the costs of the operations of the Monmouth schools would be in the situation of an AOS,” they wrote.

The fact-finding committee agreed with residents’ contention that Monmouth is paying more under the RSU than it did when the town operated its schools independently, but the increase has been driven by a $1 million reduction in state aid between 2009 and 2011. The RSU 2 board responded by tweaking the budget to keep costs down, committee members said.

The committee said after that reduction in aid and the other changes, the RSU budget increased $300,000 and the town’s responsibility was $93,000.

While Monmouth contributes more to the budget than any of the four other communities, the committee determined, “Monmouth is getting as much value from the RSU budget as it is putting in.”

Part of that value has been improved technology, upgrades at Henry L. Cottrell Elementary School and better teacher training.

“The updates at all three schools have been quite extensive,” the report said.

Selectmen are not allowed to initiate the withdrawal process, so it is up to residents to decide whether to gather signatures to force a referendum. Selectman Harold Jones said that now at least they can make that decision based on the facts.

“I think you more than filled your charge,” he told the committee. “This is more than a service to the board. It’s a service to the town.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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