Sebago to ponder whether to enter school district withdrawal mode

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

SEBAGO — As the town’s recreation director, Denise Olsen occasionally fields calls from young families pondering a move to Sebago.

One question always asked is her thoughts about the local elementary school.

“I tell them we have a wonderful, small school,” she said.

But…

“I also have to say that over the years there have been threats that Sebago Elementary could be closed,” Olsen said. “It’s a black cloud that continues to hang over us.”

Olsen and other concerned residents feel now is the time to chase that black cloud away, once and for all.

This Tuesday, Jan. 19, a public hearing will be held at the town office at 6 p.m. The hearing would include presentations by members of a group studying withdrawal options in regards “where we are, and what we can do.”

Then, Sebago residents will decide through a referendum vote on Feb. 2, “Do you favor filing a petition for withdrawal with the board of directors of regional school unit, M.S.A.D. 61 and the Commissioner of Education, authorizing the withdrawal committee to expend $25,000 and authorizing the Sebago Board of Selectmen to issue notes in the name of the Town of Sebago or otherwise pledge the credit of the Town of Sebago in an amount not to exceed $25,000 for this purpose.”

“I hope you have enough chairs out for this one,” said Ben Bowditch, who serves as one of the town’s directors on the SAD 61 School Board.

A large turnout is expected, considering the Friends of Sebago Elementary group numbers at 90-plus — “Quite a few for a town this size,” Olsen said. Ordinarily, town meeting draws about “50 max,” which several study group members insist is due to “how well managed our town is.”

“The frustration is this (school closure) hanging over their heads forever, plus being at the end of the dog’s tail being wagged — two-thirds of our budget goes to paying the schools — we have felt the last several years that we haven’t had a good say in what goes on (in SAD 61), that we’re steamrolled,” study group member Allen Crabtree said. “That plus the fear of closing Sebago Elementary led to the frustration of people to sign the petition and come out in overwhelming numbers saying they would like to explore leaving the district.”

To leave the district, Crabtree says there is a lot of inertia to contend with.

“It is going to be very difficult to overcome. We have been in the district since 1966. Although there have been ups and downs, people are comfortable,” he said. “We have a couple of choices. We can stay where we are, quit our griping, pay our taxes and try to work within the system. The people we have talked to, it is unlikely people will support this choice.”

Number 2, this is thrown out to every town and every RSU (regional school unit), Sebago could pay the differential amount to keep its school open. Estimates range from $244,000 to almost $600,000 per year.

“It seems to vary each time we ask the district. But, the Sebago voters would have to pay their regular tithe to the school district and an additional $2, $3, $4, $5 or $600,000 (a figure that would change each year) to keep our school open,” Crabtree said.

Based on a $300,000 “surcharge,” a taxpayer with a home valued at $100,000 would face an increase of about $100 on their tax bill.

Olsen said school-connected people don’t have a problem paying to keep their school open, but then don’t believe they should pay for towns’ building costs.

Richard Merritt, a former Sebago school board member, referred to the “surcharge” as “extortion.”

“That’s what it is,” Merritt said. “On Jan. 19, we need to look at what is best for our children. We have heard for 20 years that they (SAD 61) are going to close Sebago Elementary. We are constantly being threatened about closing our school. Young families hesitate to build here and move out of town, depressing values of our real estate. It’s gutting our community. With the young people leaving, we’re going to be an old-folks home.”

Option 3, Sebago withdraws from SAD 61. Leaving, Sebago would then have to decide whether to take back the elementary school building and property. Then, the town would have to decide whether to run a K-8 school on its own or sign up with another school district. Early discussions point to interest from other districts to bring Sebago into their folds.

“These things take time. We’re still in discussion,” Merritt said.

Bowditch noted that at this time, no member of the study group or Friends of Sebago Elementary possess any authority to negotiate with either SAD 61 or other school districts.

A vote to start the withdrawal process, however, would trigger a mechanism for formal negotiations, starting with the appointment of a withdrawal committee (by state law, the committee would consist of — one member from the municipal officers, one member from the general public, one member from the group filing the petition and one member from the school board, who represents the town, in this case either Bowditch or Joe McMahon).

“You can have conversations right now and gain some information, but until a committee is formed, no one is acting on behalf of the town,” Bowditch said.

At this time, the group simply will say that conversations will be had with school systems in “close proximity” to the Town of Sebago.

“The greater majority of people don’t want to leave SAD 61,” Olsen said.

“We want our school to stay open and we want to stay,” Claudia Lowe said.

In regards to Sebago’s debt service to SAD 61, a recent change in state law allows school districts and towns seeking to withdraw room to negotiate what the debt service figure would be.

Since 2012, 25 municipalities have withdrawn from regional school units. Ten left in 2015.

“People will want to know if we vote to withdraw, go to referendum vote in February, are we then committed to this course of action? The answer is ‘No.’ The 22 steps have several places where a town embarks on the withdrawal process, can withdraw from that process,” Crabtree said. “If at some point we can get an iron-clad assurance that the sword over our head will be removed, I think there would be a meeting of the minds and stop the withdrawal process. But, you have to start the process to get people to sit down at the table and negotiate in good faith.”

There has been no meeting to date between SAD 61 officials and Sebago residents leading the withdrawal process movement.

Crabtree believes if the town can reach an agreement, not simply a policy statement, that SAD 61 will not close Sebago Elementary, “that would take the sword hanging over our heads away. We will be looking for some surety that our school will remain open.”

If one silver lining has emerged from Sebago residents trying to save their school, it has been responses heard from other residents in SAD 61.

“If one good thing that has come from this is for the first time ever, we do have support from the other towns,” Olsen said. “I wasn’t sure what people in other towns thought. They understand what we are fighting for.”

 

 

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