BELGRADE — Frustrated with rising education costs in their town, some Belgrade residents say a petition to start the process for withdrawal from Regional School Unit 18 will surface soon.

If it does, it would be only the first in a long series of steps prescribed by the Maine Department of Education and it is in no way a guarantee that withdrawal would take place.

“A number of people have been talking about the petition and the process for getting it together,” Howard Holinger said Thursday. If it does happen, he said, sooner is better.

Penny Morrell is more certain.

“We’re full speed ahead,” she said.

The move comes after a presentation Tuesday to the Belgrade Board of Selectpersons by the Belgrade/RSU 18 Review Committee, which was created in the middle of last year to try to get a better understanding of what Belgrade residents are paying to educate their students. While student population numbers are flat or dropping, the amount residents pay increases regularly.

The committee’s charge was to identify the advantage to Belgrade of remaining with RSU 18.

“We’re not making any recommendations,” said committee Chairwoman Lani Carlson, whose committee was tasked only with fact-finding.

What it offered up was a snapshot of three scenarios that Belgrade residents could face.

The first is staying with the school district. The total estimated cost to the town would be nearly $5.8 million.

The second is withdrawing from the school district, and entering into a tuition contract with RSU 18 to send all students there. While it’s only an estimate, because the tuition would have to be negotiated, the estimated cost to Belgrade would be $5.7 million.

The third is withdrawing from the district, operating the Belgrade Central School under local control for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and sending students in grades six through 12 to RSU 18 schools under a tuition contract. Because of the negotiation required, the cost to Belgrade is estimated at a little more than $5.2 million.

“This is just our best guess, based on what we found in available data,” Carlson said.

Holinger, who is on the town’s Budget Committee and was on the Belgrade/RSU 18 Review Committee, said Tuesday the committee wasn’t intended to develop detailed scenarios of specific costs of withdrawing.

“The state has a 22-step plan that addresses those questions,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting came one day before the RSU 18 school board was set to vote on the proposed budget that will go before district voters at a district budget meeting on May 12 and to a districtwide referendum on May 24.

The RSU 18 school board met to consider Superintendent Gary Smith’s proposed district spending plan of $34,694,812.65. After some discussion and adjustments, the board passed a budget that’s about $90,000 less than that. Final calculations are expected to be completed next week, but it’s still up more than $100,000 from last year’s approved district budget.

“Our hope is that we brought forward a budget that serves our kids and is acceptable to the towns,” RSU 18 chief academic officer Carl Gartley said Thursday.

Residents in the school district’s five towns —— Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney —— have not always fallen into line. They rejected the district’s proposed budgets in 2015 and 2012 , prompting recalculations before enough voters approved it.

Gartley, who was on the Belgrade/RSU 18 Review Committee, said he can understand why Belgrade residents are concerned. Because of the amount of shorefront property in Belgrade, its valuation is higher and it doesn’t qualify for any state subsidy to foot the bill.

“Funding has shifted from the state to the local level, and it’s been difficult,” Gartley said. “It used to be that about 67 cents of every dollar came from the state subsidies, and now it’s about 44 cents of every dollar.”

The bulk of school district revenue in Maine, raised through local property taxes, pays for essential programs and services, which are mandated by the state and intended to provide equity in education across all districts. Towns don’t have discretion to change that.

At their option, districts also can seek additional local money to augment that spending, and Gartley said many do.

The formula for those funds is based 75 percent on valuation and 25 percent on student population. Belgrade residents, because of the town’s relatively high valuation, have felt that they might be subsidizing other towns as a result. Revisiting that formula is seen as one possibility for cutting the education costs that Belgrade voters pay.

“By law, we have to revisit that formula five years after consolidation,” Gartley said. “Belgrade has been asking for that, but we have to do it next year anyway.”

Ernie Rice, who is on the Belgrade Board of Selectpersons, said there’s an impression that everyone who lives in town is well-off.

“The people here, most are struggling,” he said, and there’s little opportunity for them. “Last year, we (the town) ended up owning six properties because people couldn’t pay their taxes.”

In the meantime, if residents circulate a withdrawal petition, they are required to collect at least 10 percent of the number of voters in Belgrade who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Submitting a petition that meets that requirement to the Board of Selectpersons triggers a special election to vote on whether to start the withdrawal process officially. The article must specify the dollar amount to be raised to support legal and other withdrawal costs.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Holinger said.

Tyler Backus, who lives in Oakland, has been looking at the district’s spending and is trying to identify areas where spending could be cut. He brings his experience working as a school finance coordinator for the state Department of Education, as well as his concern as a school district resident, to this equation. If Belgrade were to leave, he said, Oakland would see a 15 percent increase in its assessment.

“That becomes concerning to me. In this whole thing, I would rather Belgrade not withdraw,” he said.

He has flagged spending on the teaching staff and additional spending on instructional technology, and he has questions about stipends.

“How school funding works is hard to understand,” he said.

Morrell said some of his findings are concerning and worth looking into.

“It’s all public information,” she said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ