MONMOUTH — Public testimony at a hearing Wednesday leaned heavily in favor of the town staying in Regional School Unit 2 instead of leaving it.

However, the 100 or so people who attended the hearing represent just a fraction of the turnout that will be necessary for a decisive vote at the annual Town Meeting in June. A vote to withdraw from the school district will be valid only if there is a turnout of at least 960 people, or half the number who voted in the last election for governor.

Ron Moody, chairman of the withdrawal committee, said he’ll support the outcome of the vote either way, but he just hopes enough people will vote to provide a clear answer and allow Monmouth to move on.

“We can and will make this the best system in the state of Maine, but as long as we have a divided community, that’s not going to happen,” he said at the hearing. “And we have a divided community right now.”

Two people at the hearing spoke in favor of withdrawal, while 10 who spoke opposed it.

If voters approve the withdrawal, Monmouth would separate from Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell and Richmond effective July 1, 2014.

Those in favor of withdrawing said it would restore Monmouth’s local control over how much money to spend on education and how to spend it, plus decisions involving curriculum, administration or other issues.

Those against withdrawing said local control is less important than the effect on students. Withdrawing would create upheaval in the schools, and Monmouth cannot afford to provide the educational resources that exist in RSU 2, they said.

There was disagreement about the opinions of Monmouth teachers and staff. Resident Hugh LeMaster said he’s talked with several school employees who want to leave the school district, but they won’t speak up because they fear for their jobs.

On the other hand, two Monmouth teachers spoke in favor of sticking with RSU 2; and Jeff Gosselin, an RSU 2 school board member from Monmouth, said 45 of 50 staff members who responded to an online survey favored staying in the school district.

Former Monmouth school board member Rich Howard, also a substitute teacher, said the argument made by the withdrawal committee — that Monmouth students would be the top and only priority of a municipal school board — isn’t convincing.

“I just couldn’t see anything there that was going to make education in this community better,” Howard said. “For a lot of reasons, I think it will make education for our children worse.”

Howard said the schools are doing well after a period of transition and that Monmouth is getting good value from the school district.

Others also praised RSU 2’s leaders and their handling of district finances.

“They have done a very credible job in managing the budget over this period of time, given the massive cuts in funding that they’ve had to deal with,” Selectman Harold Jones said.

The withdrawal agreement requires Monmouth to reimburse RSU 2 $17,543 for costs associated with getting Monmouth Middle School and Cottrell Elementary School on the state’s school construction list. Other obligations have to be paid whether Monmouth remains in RSU 2 or not.

The Maine Department of Education has estimated that Monmouth would receive about $200,000 less in state funding as a stand-alone school district.

LeMaster said that while withdrawal will cost more in the short term, he believes Monmouth will save money later on.

Former Monmouth school board member Steve Kolenda said it’s important for Monmouth voters to have control over their own taxes, especially in a time when cuts in state and federal education funding will shift more of the burden to taxpayers.

He noted that in 2011, Monmouth rejected the RSU 2 budget, but voters in the other communities approved it by a large enough margin to overrule Monmouth’s vote.

“Your taxes will be going up, and it will be out of your control,” Kolenda said. “It will be up to the RSU how it’s done.”

Kolenda also said Monmouth’s schools have lost the reputation for excellence they had in the 1990s.

Resident Amy Dolan, the parent of two elementary-level students, said Monmouth schools might have been highly regarded 20 years ago, but by the time the town joined RSU 2 in 2009, buildings had fallen into disrepair and educational quality had slipped.

Since then, test scores have gone back up and the schools in Monmouth and elsewhere in the RSU have become a model of the standards-based reforms Maine now requires of all schools.

“By withdrawing, we are trying to fix something that is not broken,” Dolan said. “The RSU fixed what we had broken here.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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