CHINA — Town voters will consider a ballot question Nov. 6 that asks if they want to consider withdrawing from Regional School Unit 18, which covers the towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

Town resident Judy Hotham worked with a group this summer to gather the signatures necessary to put a question on the ballot that would permit the Board of Selectmen to spend $35,000 to pay for legal fees that would be part of the withdrawal process.

Since China joined the school unit four years ago, it’s been an uneasy partnership for many people in town, she said.

“We were told we had no choice and if we didn’t (join) there was going to be big fines,” she said. “It was like a shotgun marriage and we all know shotgun marriages don’t usually pan out.”

China is one of nearly 20 towns statewide in various phases of withdrawing from their school districts. A state law passed in 2007 required nearly all communities in the state to join a regional partnership as part of school district consolidation. The law was intended to save money by reducing the number of school districts from 290 to about 80.

Earlier this month, voters in RSU 18 approved a budget after voting on proposals three times in five months. The $31.9 million budget passed in China 133-46.

Superintendent Gary Smith said he’s been focused on getting a budget in place and he hopes voters give he and others more time to continue to work on the new school district.

“A lot of the hard work is done,” Smith said. “We need some time to really make this work. Let’s give it another two or three years. The amount of work to reverse this is going to be as hard as it was to get into it.”

The regional school unit, which is now in its fourth year, has completed work on the curriculum, negotiated new teacher contracts, and reduced the budget to 2006-07 levels, he said.

“China was used to calling its own shots and then having to be part of a larger group, that cultural change is not going to happen quickly,” he said.

Hotham, a former school board member who has grandchildren in the school system, said China has little in common with Oakland, which is home base for the district. When it joined the district, China gave up ownership of its schools and the land they are on, and it gave control over school policy to a 10-member regional board with just two representatives from China, she said.

“Many, many people you talk to in town will say, ‘I can’t imagine we lined up with Oakland to begin with,'” she said.

However, the town select board and budget committee are recommending a no vote.

“We as a board believe it’s best for our kids in school,” said Selectman Paul MacDonald. “They get more by being in the RSU versus standing alone. I think we’re in the best position we’re going to be in now.”

Selectwoman Joann Austin said she’s concerned that once the town starts down the road of considering withdrawal, it will be hard to pull back.

“I don’t feel very comfortable with it,” she said. “I don’t want to go there until I know it’s a direction I want to head.”

Hotham said she hopes China could form an Alternative Organizational Structure with other nearby towns, which allows towns to have their own school boards while remaining part of a larger regional structure. That would give residents more control over the schools in town, she said.

“Sometimes bigger isn’t always better,” she said. “When you’re the odd man out, that’s just the way it is.”

Susan Cover — 621-5643

[email protected]

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