MONMOUTH — Ending a relationship is almost always painful, but it remains to be seen just how much it would hurt for the community to break up with Regional School Unit 2.

Voters will decide next month whether they want to begin the withdrawal process, but the few dozen residents who turned out for Wednesday’s public hearing learned they will have to make that decision with tremendous uncertainty about how it will all work out.

“If the town votes yes, think of it as hiring a lawyer to negotiate a divorce,” said resident Dave Heckman, who spent several months working on the fact-finding committee the town established to explore leaving the RSU.

Voters at the June 12 referendum-style town meeting will be asked to begin the withdrawal process and form a committee that would negotiate financial parameters for leaving the school district, which also serves Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell and Richmond. The committee would be given $15,000 to spend toward legal and other fees.

A final decision to leave the school district would require another referendum vote once the withdrawal committee has completed its work.

Selectmen are presenting the withdrawal question in response to a citizen petition given to the board last month.

Monmouth schools operated independently until 2009, when the town joined RSU 2 as part of the Maine Department of Education’s statewide consolidation mandate. 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 vote last June supported exploring whether to leave the school district. Selectmen formed the RSU Fact Finding Committee in response to that vote.

“We need to take our schools back,” resident Ed Phillips said during Wednesday’s meeting. “The simplest thing would be all (five) towns to say, ‘Lets go our own way, because nobody’s happy.’ I believe local control is the answer.”

The fact finding committee, which included Heckman, was asked to explore the effects of both remaining with the school district and withdrawing and reorganizing with other communities in an alternative organizational structure, called an AOS.

But many of the questions on residents’ minds — such as who would lead Monmouth’s schools if the town withdraws, how much it would cost to leave and how leaving might impact chances of getting the state to pay for a new middle school — could not be answered definitively by the fact finding committee during the meeting on Wednesday.

“The $15,000 is to go the next step and research what the impact will be,” said RSU 2 Board Member Annya Rice, who also served on the fact finding committee.

If voters decide to stay, the $15,000 spent during the withdrawal process could not be recovered. Resident Hugh LeMaster described that as a “pittance” in light of the importance of the issue.

“We’re hearing a lot of, ‘We’re not sure. We don’t know,'” LeMaster said. “If that’s the case, let’s get it.”

But resident Amy Dolan, a member of the fact finding committee whose children attend Monmouth’s schools, said parents have already seen improved facilities and programs since joining the school district.

“A lot of questions have been answered,” Dolan said. “There are some things we don’t know, but we can’t forget about what we do know.”

The district has been blamed for eliminating the industrial arts program, but Dolan argued that decision was based on the state’s dwindling contribution to education. Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said RSU 2 has responded by cutting more than $4 million from its budget to try and keep property taxes in check.

But former Monmouth Academy principal Ron Moody, who turned in the withdrawal petition, said those cuts have been made on the backs of teachers. Moody, who also is a member of the fact finding committee, said the state sold consolidation to the public as a way to reduce costs by eliminating administration.

Instead, Monmouth has gone from paying for three administrators, including support staff, in the central office, to 16.

“We are paying more for administration now than we did,” Moody said. “When we cut teachers before we cut administration, it doesn’t make sense to me. I really think we ought to stop developing the budget from the top down. I don’t oppose the RSU. I just oppose where the money’s going in the RSU.”

If voters agree to begin the withdrawal process there would be a second referendum vote for final approval after the withdrawal committee negotiated exit fees with RSU 2. The state recently enacted legislation that allows a simple majority vote to approve withdrawal. After Jan. 1, 2015, however, the second vote would require a two-thirds majority to leave.

Jonathan Hillier, a Monmouth Academy graduate running for a spot on the RSU 2 Board, said Monmouth rushed to join the school district for fear of being penalized.

The state removed those threats after the town voted to join.

“If people think we joined the RSU without understanding the risks, I understand that,” Hillier said. “But we’re about to do the same thing jumping out. I’m worried about us leaping before we look.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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