SAD 61 counter offer: will try to educate in hometowns, but no guarantees

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

As one of two longest tenured members on the SAD 61 School Board, Janice Barter is quite familiar with the district’s stance regarding where elementary school children will be taught.

For the past 17 years — Barter’s stay on the school board — SAD 61 has pushed to educate its youngest children in their hometowns.

But, there is no guarantee that approach will be taken five, 10 or 20 years from now. Finances change. Situations develop.

So, Barter and members of the SAD 61 Withdrawal Committee Tuesday night reaffirmed the district’s position to do its best to keep elementary children in their hometowns, but refused to enter an agreement with the Town of Sebago to guarantee its school will remain open for 20 years (or some type of variation, such as five-year intervals with a review whether to continue to proceed, which was suggested at the last withdrawal meeting).

Members publicly reviewed a Sebago Withdrawal Committee counteroffer, and offered comments regarding the last negotiating session.

Casco Director Stan Buchanan felt the prior proposal was “dictating” in nature, and added that as a “district,” the board needs to act in the best interest of “all children” and “all four towns,” not just one community.

Bridgton Director Karla Swanson-Murphy felt SAD 61 could head down a “slippery slope” if it entertains some of the ideas put forth by the Sebago Withdrawal Committee. She feels if Sebago remains in the SAD 61 fold, it should adhere to the present model — K-5 (add Pre-K if the district takes on the program) at the elementary level, grades 6-8 at the middle school.

Directors again emphasized that legal counsel has recommended against agreeing to stipulations that could bind future school boards, such as the 20-year no SES closure clause or a specific enrollment number (40 was suggested by Sebago reps), which would trigger closure discussions.

Superintendent of Schools Al Smith feels Sebago could experience “real educational losses” if the town decides to withdraw and operate a K-8 school on its own. Because of costs, Smith said Sebago would be hard-pressed to offer programs such as Industrial Arts, Consumer Science and foreign languages (LRMS currently offers two foreign language programs) to middle-school age students.

Smith also later clarified that if Sebago decides to operate its own school, the current teaching staff there would remain part of that school, and would no longer be under contract with SAD 61. The teachers there would automatically have their own union, and would then negotiate a contract with the new school system. Smith pointed out that the school would also need to hire a superintendent (likely a part-timer) and other staff. Special education services, Smith said, could also become burdensome on a smaller school unit.

“Services can be astronomical, in the range of $75,000 to $100,000 a year,” he said.

In the present proposal, the Sebago Withdrawal Committee is looking for SAD 61 to turn over three buses. Casco Director Phil Shane noted that two buses currently serve Sebago, and wondered if the requested third was a “spare?”

A key element in the proposal is if Sebago decides to withdraw, the town would not be responsible for any additional locally-funded projects.

“Since they would not be liable for that debt, there is no longer a reason for them (Sebago voters) to vote against the project,” Smith said. However, if a project is presented before Sebago withdraws, voters there could still participate in the voting process. If at the 11th hour Sebago residents have a change of heart, decide against withdrawing and remain with SAD 61, then the town is liable for 14% of the project cost.

The “project” is Crooked River. SAD 61 will certainly revisit how to repurpose the Route 11 building in Casco, and thus bring back educating elementary school children in their hometown. The last plan looked to create a grade three, four and five school.

To address the immediate problem of overcrowding at Songo Locks, the district will add a four-classroom portable there for this fall. The new portable, along with a two-classroom portable located to the school’s left side, will cost the district $160,000 per year. Smith said the district entered into a three-year lease for the new portable, but can “get out of the lease” in two years.

Swanson-Murphy pointed out that lease price tag is just slightly below what SAD 61 taxpayers were facing if they had approved the last Crooked River project proposal.

Noting Casco is presently the only town that has no elementary school, Buchanan wondered whether Casco residents truly feel about the current arrangement.

“I know some people are upset, feeling like one town is trying to tell other towns what to do,” he said. “I don’t really know if people are upset or not that we don’t have an elementary school. I’d like to know.”

When asked, “what’s next?” Smith said if the district and the Sebago Withdrawal Committee is unable to come to an agreement and continues the withdrawal process, the two sides will then go to mediation — for which each side incurs their own costs. While mediation can “drag on,” Smith pointed out that the withdrawal process does have a defined timeline and indicates points when Maine’s Department of Education commissioner enters the picture.

Bridgton Director Karen Elder, who was a member of the audience inside the LRHS library, wondered whether most Sebago residents realize the path the town is on.

“When I talked with a number of people there, they were told that for Sebago to have conversations with the district regarding closure of their school, they needed to enter the withdrawal process. That’s simply not true,” Smith said. “We could have formed a small committee to discuss it. Ultimately, it will be up to Sebago as to what they want to do.”

One resident wondered if Sebago remains in the SAD 61 fold would dysfunction continue to exist?

“That’s a hard question, one I don’t have an answer for,” Smith said. “I would hope that if Sebago stays, the town would be supportive of what we need to have educationally for all our children.”

The Sebago Withdrawal Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for July 21.

 

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