SAD 61, Sebago negotiations contentious at times

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

Negotiations between SAD 61 and the Sebago Withdrawal Committee regarding the elementary school’s future and whether the town will remain with the district ran the gamut of emotions — heated at times, confusion and hopeful.

The two sides met a week ago as the Withdrawal Committee, headed by consultant Dr. Mark Eastman (a former superintendent of schools for SAD 17), raised various positions included in a proposed “draft agreement.”

At the start of the meeting, SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith set forth a few ground rules before the two sides started discussing Sebago’s “draft agreement.”

“We are here for the right reasons to come to some type of resolution, if not, we’ll move toward the next steps in the (withdrawal) process,” he said.

Dr. Eastman opened his presentation indicating the group had sent SAD 61 officials “an alternative” to withdraw.

“There is a lot of interest in the Town of Sebago,” he said. “They are concerned about their school, but I don’t think their first priority is to withdraw. The alternative proposal was not intended to be a dictate, at all, but a conversation starter. We would like to walk through it and talk about what our thinking was, and make it very clear that it wasn’t the last word and are willing to talk about it, negotiate it.”

He added, the group is interested in achieving a “positive solution” for SAD 61 as well as citizens of Sebago.

Stan Buchanan, a SAD 61 director from Casco, pointed out that the board has the interest of all students at heart.

“When I first read the proposal, I took it as you were dictating what was going to happen, and it didn’t sit well with me,” he said.

Some elements of the proposed agreement include:

  • The SAD 61 long-term capital plan will include an addition/renovation plan for updating of the Sebago Elementary School (SES) facility and addition of a gymnasium to SES, to be completed no later than any other elementary school construction project within SAD 61.
  • The SAD 61 board agrees to keep SES open as a grade Pre K-6 school for a minimum period of 20 years from the date of this agreement. This agreement may only be reassessed in the following circumstances:

The number of Sebago resident students educated by the district in grades Pre K-6 is less than 40;

The State Board of Education approves a replacement school in Sebago with debt service qualifying for purposes of state subsidy (any replacement school shall be subject to approval of Sebago voters);

The SAD 61 board determines that the school has been substantially destroyed by fire.

  • If a warrant for a referendum to approve funding for a reasonable construction project to address capacity issues in SAD 61 elementary schools is issued after a favorable referendum vote in the Town of Sebago, the board of selectmen and members of the Withdrawal Committee will not actively oppose the construction referendum.
  • In the event SAD 61 proposes to close SES for lack of need for the reason provided in section 6 (a), the SAD 61 board shall give at least one year advance notice to the town before initiating a school closing by filing the cost determination application with the Department of Education.
  • A school closing is subject to local referendum approval. The SES building shall be offered to the Town of Sebago at no cost if the building is no longer used to educate grade Pre K-6 students.
  • This agreement shall terminate if the Town of Sebago votes to withdraw from SAD 61.

If an agreement is reached with the school district, the Withdrawal Committee would ask Sebago voters to rescind the withdrawal process.

There was, however, no movement on the proposal.

“Folks in Sebago believe returning the sixth grade to town would relieve some pressures at the middle school,” Eastman said.

A major sticking point was the 40-student figure used as the trigger number for possible school closure.

“We don’t have overcrowding at the middle school,” Smith first responded. “In regards to the 40-student cut-off point, the school already costs the district $12,000 to educate a student there. Sebago covers 14%, and the other towns pick up the remaining, which is fine, it’s what districts do. When you start talking about these numbers, you’re talking about educating students at $22,000. Some things you have here don’t make sense to me as a superintendent.”

Smith also didn’t like the tone regarding district construction projects and whether Sebago would support or oppose.

“When you say you won’t oppose a construction project if you do X, Y and Z, I find that threatening, I don’t understand it from a district standpoint when you need to look at what’s best for all kids. I do understand the situation with the (SES) cafeteria, but we have to look at things from a fiscal situation and what needs to come first,” Smith said. “The (draft agreement) proposal was not a good starting point because it is very far reaching in many areas. You can negotiate anything, but you need a place where there are reasonable opportunities to have success.”

Eastman asked if the district had “a number” other than 40 that would make fiscal sense.

“I’m not recommending anything, I am listening to your thoughts,” Smith responded.

Withdrawal Committee member Lisa Johnson thought a 20-year no school closure guarantee may be too far reaching, but felt it was a starting point for discussion.

“Our attorney recommended to us that it would not be wise for this board to make a decision that would impact boards in the future. By that, he is saying this board doesn’t have a legal right to make a decision to keep the school open. There are opportunities for assurances,” Smith said.

Eastman reduced the figure to a 10-year minimum no closure guarantee.

“There have been no formal motions or initiatives to close SES. We felt, if that’s the case, getting a 10-year commitment would not be a problem,” he said. “We know these things do happen. Attorneys have ways to work through issues.” Eastman pointed out a 10-year pact in Dirigo and a 20-year pact in Poland.

“There is an opportunity here,” he said. “Give us a 10-year with a five-year right of review. You can decide to extend it or not. Gives us a five-year notice to Sebago that you may not want to continue with the school,” Eastman said.

“You would expect to keep the school open with eight teachers and five kids per classroom?” School Board Chairman Janice Barter asked.

Johnson replied, “This was a starting point. It was never said this was set in stone. To not get a counter, it makes me feel that a withdrawal is encouraged by you. Otherwise, we would be having some discussion and some movement around this. There is no movement, so I feel this is a closed door to us, and it pushes us toward withdrawal.”

Bridgton Director Karla Swanson-Murphy said, “Did the Town of Sebago not vote to start the withdrawal process? I expected from that vote it is what the town desires.”

Eastman replied, “There is some confusion here. We were told the only way we could have a discussion with SAD 61 board was to initiate the withdrawal process.”

Former school board member and current Withdrawal Committee member Richard Merritt said, “Your superintendent was not willing to talk with us.”

“I may be a lot of things, but I am not a liar. What you are saying about me is a lie. I offered during an open (selectmen’s) meeting that I would be willing to meet with a small group and talk about how we could do things differently. That is not true Richard,” Smith responded. “We need to move past this if we are going to have any opportunity to resolve this. We are here to listen to your thoughts about not withdrawing. I said several times you did not need to start the withdrawal process.”

One suggestion was for Sebago taxpayers to pick up additional costs (over what other elementary school student costs may be) to keep grade levels open even if enrollment drops to 40.

Eastman tossed out the idea of multi-age classrooms as a way to reduce costs in a small school.

“You look at creative solutions,” he said.

“What number makes sense, if 40 doesn’t?” Johnson asked.

Barter said SES currently has class sizes of 12, while Songo Locks and Bridgton have 18-plus.

Merritt said the multi-age class scenario had been raised before, and claimed Barter responded at the time it was not educationally sound.

Barter said her children were part of multi-age classes, but with changes in testing and standards, that educational approach is no longer viable.

“It’s not what is educationally sound now,” she said.

“I’ve seen it done well and not done well. It depends on the skill of the teacher as well as the grouping of students,” Smith said. “From an educational standpoint, can it work, yes. Can it fail, yes. I want to know is this the reason why we are here? What can we work out so our elementary school stays K-5, Pre K-5 (when we can put it together), what will it look like in five years? We try to keep costs down no matter what we do, but you still get to a place you can’t do that. We have to be fiscally responsible to all of our communities. The state doesn’t look to help schools under 130 students. We are making it work. It’s not inexpensive.”

If the sixth grade had remained at SES and not moved to Lake Region Middle School, the school population would be close to 100, Eastman noted. Adding Pre K could enhance enrollment, and attract young families to move to Sebago.

Superintendent Smith pointed out that a number of school systems added Pre K as a means to maintain or gain more state aid at a time when their student populations were shrinking. Here in SAD 61, the district receives little state aid, thus “whatever we do, it falls on the backs of our taxpayers,” Smith said. “I really have to keep a better eye on things financially than I ever have. I’m not opposed to keeping a school open, but when you get to a point when economics and education are crashing together, you need to look at alternatives.”

Hearing possible options — multi-grades and Sebago paying more to keep grade levels if enrollment shrinks — Eastman felt “some progress” was being made.

“It’s not leaps and bounds,” he said.

It’s a start. The two groups will continue discussions this Tuesday, July 12, at 7 p.m. at the Lake Region High School library.

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