Good-bye SAD 61! Sebago votes to withdraw from district, start own school system

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

SEBAGO — When Lisa Johnson heard that Sebago voters supported withdrawal from SAD 61 to operate their own school system, she was both satisfied and relieved.

“My reaction to the vote tonight is relief. We needed this referendum to pass by a super majority of 2/3 of today’s voters and we exceeded it by perhaps more than I even expected,” said Johnson, who served on the Sebago Withdrawal Committee for the past two years. “I know Sebago values its school and its children, but Sebago also values local control. I think the time had finally come to proactively protect the future of Sebago Elementary School.”

By a 464 to 167 (easily meeting the two-thirds requirement) vote Tuesday, Sebago residents decided to withdraw from SAD 61 as of July 1, 2018, and create their own school system.

SAD 61 Superintendent of Schools Al Smith respects the town’s decision to do what it feels is in the best interest of their children.

“We will help out in any way to make it a smooth transition,” Smith said. “I am disappointed that the (Sebago) kids will not have some of the opportunities afforded other children, being in a smaller setting and not having the financial support of a school district. However, I know the town will do what is in the best interest of the children.”

SAD 61 School Board chairman Janice Barter wished the best for Sebago after the “overwhelming vote,” and added, “I believe the district can now be more focused regarding the educational opportunities for Bridgton, Casco and Naples children.”

Children in Grades 1 through 5 will attend Sebago Elementary School, while Grade 6 could also be moved back to Sebago.

Smith noted that economically, it would likely cost Sebago less money to tuition Grade 6 students to Lake Region Middle School than return that age level to SES. He also feels LRMS can offer Grade 6 students more educational opportunities.

Once a local school board is elected and a superintendent hired, officials will decide whether the school will offer a pre-K program and whether to bring Grade 6 back to Sebago. No decisions on either issue have been made. The projected budget for the new Sebago school unit includes Pre-K and sixth grade, but just for planning purposes.

Under the state approved agreement between SAD 61 and Sebago, Lake Region will be Sebago’s guaranteed school of acceptance. Middle and high school students can attend Lake Region, or also consider school choice options.

The Withdrawal Committee will meet tonight, Nov. 9, at the school library to discuss the next 100 steps in the process for forming a new school administrative unit.

Dr. Eastman and Attorney Stockford will likely be used on an “as needed basis” moving forward.

“There comes a time to fly on your own wings,” said Allen Crabtree, who serves as the Withdrawal Committee’s recording secretary. “Since both Dr. (Mark) Eastman and Attorney (Dan) Stockford have been involved in our school system setups, they were able to help us avoid a number of false steps in this process and enabled us to work in an efficient manner.”

Strong turnout

Crabtree reported early Tuesday night that voter turnout had been steady with 422 ballots cast by 4:30 p.m.

“The parking lot was full,” Crabtree found.

When the final tally was reached at about 9:21 p.m., word quickly trickled out to the community.

“Hoooray! Thanks to everyone’s hard work, our school has been saved!” Wendy Newcomb responded in an e-mail.

Dr. Mark Eastman, who served as the Withdrawal Committee’s consultant, added, “Kudos to all for running a great campaign! Well done.”

A big question entering Tuesday’s vote was how did parents of school-age children feel about withdrawal, since many did not attend public meetings and hearings leading up to the critical vote.

“I was concerned about the lack of parent attendance at meetings and hearings over the last two years.  But, I knew they would come out, just as they have in the prior referendums that got us here. We have a tight-knit community and our school is at the heart of it,” Johnson said.

The “yes” vote was very rewarding for Johnson considering the amount of time and effort it took to research the ramifications of withdrawal, as well as negotiate terms with SAD 61 officials.

“Working on the Withdrawal Committee has been challenging and time-consuming, but I knew it was where I was meant to be. I have been fighting for small schools since 2012, but this time it was different. Something told me to stick with it,” said Johnson, who wrote a letter that appeared in The News last week regarding closure of elementary schools in communities she had previously resided in. “Sebago would not allow what has happened to so many other towns to happen here. SES means too much to this town to risk its future.”

Like many others, Johnson held out hope that some type of agreement and guarantee could be reached with SAD 61 to keep Sebago Elementary open. Withdrawal Committee members looked for a 10-year guarantee, but SAD 61 balked at the idea.

“When we were unable to negotiate a ‘staying’ agreement with SAD 61, I was disappointed. I knew that was the first choice for most of us. But without some assurance from the district about the future of our school, there was no choice but to push forward and explore the feasibility of withdrawal,” Johnson said. “When we were then able to finally negotiate a scenario where Lake Region could be our school of guaranteed acceptance (for our middle and high school kids) and still keep a school choice option open, that was a huge success for our committee. Students could still be Lakers if their families wish, and some students could go elsewhere if that’s what fits their needs. The withdrawal agreement became a win-win at that point.”

Since 2013, 26 towns have withdrawn from their regional school units and school administrative districts. The reasons: their town school was in danger of being closed; to give them control of the education for their kids; and to preserve and foster the vitality of their community.

Johnson is grateful to Dr. Mark Eastman, a former superintendent who served as the group’s consultant, and Attorney Dan Stockford, fellow committee members, the people who came to meetings and helped in every way possible, and to those who voted “yes” Tuesday “for their faith in us and in their foresight.”

“There is much work to be done now, but the future is bright for SES and for Sebago,” she added.

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