CHELSEA — Ralph Hilton stood at the microphone set up in the gym at the Chelsea School Thursday night and said he wished the town would withdraw from Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12.

“My taxes would go down,” said Hilton, a member of the RSU 12 school board representing Alna, because the school costs more to run than Chelsea pays to the district.

So it’s not clear that Chelsea taxes would drop if voters pursue removing the town from the school district they joined nearly a decade ago.

Hilton was one of about two dozen people to attend a public hearing at the Chelsea School on a proposal that will appear on the November ballot, asking whether residents favor filing a petition for withdrawal from the school district with the school board and the state commissioner of education. Along with that, they are being asked to authorize spending $15,000 for that.

Despite his quip, Hilton was speaking against withdrawal, as did about a half-dozen other people.

When Deb Sanderson, chairwoman of the Chelsea Board of Selectmen, sought comment from people in favor of withdrawing, no one did.

“I cannot even imagine how it would be financially feasible for such a small community to fund a school with the opportunities that are available in a larger group setting,” Ardyce Robbin said. “The expenses of withdrawing are huge. The expenses of reorganizing and financing an independent school district are significant. And how it can be less than the tax burden, I cannot imagine what that could even be.”

Robbin said she’s against anything that decreases the opportunities or the quality of education for the town’s children.

“They are the heart of our community and the heart of our state,” she said. “We owe them the best education we can give them.”

Hilton said Chelsea pays $2.2 million to the district in property tax, but the cost of running the Chelsea school is more than $3 million.

Those costs would be even higher for the town if it left the school district because in addition to footing the bill for running the school, Chelsea taxpayers would also have to pay for a superintendant and a special education director as well as find space to house them and administrative functions of running the school.

In addition to that, Chelsea would be required to pay the district about $2 million for its share of district-wide projects and commitments.

Hilton said in the first year after Wiscasset withdrew from RSU 12, its budget was $2.5 million more than it had paid when it was part of the district. To cut costs, he said, Wiscasset closed one of its three schools.

Mike Pushard, the Chelsea selectman who helped secure the number of petition signatures needed to get the question on the ballot, said he had not seen that list.

And he said he was unaware at the time people voted to form the RSU during statewide school district consolidation that there would be a cost to leaving the district.

Hilton was joined at the meeting by fellow board member Richard Cote, who represents Chelsea, and Howard Tuttle, superintendent.

In an earlier interview with the Kennebec Journal, Tuttle said rising costs contribute to a increasing district budget, but other factors like student population, specifically affect Chelsea.

“If you have an additional 45 students, that will increase what you pay,” he said. “My understanding is that the people who signed the petition feel that the local taxes are going up and the school district is causing the problem.”

But at the same time, he said, the district vote on the budget has shown 65 percent to 70 percent approval in recent years.

If town residents believe that Chelsea will get a reduction in taxes when it has control of the school, Tuttle said that won’t happen.

“There’s no way to run the school for less and pay for high schoolers to be tuitioned out for less than what they pay now,” he said. “That’s what Windsor discovered.”

Tuttle said the district has been through the withdrawal process four times in the last five years. In addition to Wiscasset, the towns of Westport Island, Windsor and Palermo have started the process, but none has completed it.

At the meeting, however, Pushard said selectmen make choices for municipal government based on what the school budget is.

“We have to cut his budget,” he said, referring to Town Manager Scott Tilton, “to afford your budget.”

Selectman Benjamin Smith said this year, Chelsea opted to apply $150,000 in surplus funds to offset the expected mill rate increase.

“I think we would appreciate a little more transparency in the budget process,” he said.

Tuttle said he makes the rounds to the towns in the district — Chelsea, Somerville, Whitefield, Windsor and Palermo, which all have schools, and Alna and Westport Island, which do not have schools — during the budget season.

“I may be the only superintendent who does,” he said.

Cote, who serves on the school district’s Finance Committee, said he represents the town as well.

“I’ll be glad to give you further updates in the spring months,” he said. “I can make sure if you have question, we can get you an answer.”

Tilton urged town residents to vote on the question on Election Day.

“That will determine the next steps,” he said. “If the vote fails or passes, that’s the direction we’ll take.”

The procedure for withdrawal is spelled out in 22 steps on the state Department of Education website.

It starts with the petition to put the question on a ballot for a special election and holding a public hearing on the matter.

If the voters approve, a four-member withdrawal committee, consisting of a member of the board of selectmen, a town resident, a member of the group that filed the petition and a member of the school board who represents Chelsea.

The committee would be charged with crafting a withdrawal agreement, which would undergo review at the state level as it is developed and require public hearings at several points in the process.

Once the plan is complete, the question goes again to the voters. If they agree, the withdrawals agreement is executed.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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