Town officials updated by SAD 61 regarding Sebago withdrawal

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

The possibility of Sebago withdrawing from SAD 61 is looking more and more like a divorce.

The hurt runs deep.

Each side is looking for the best deal possible.

There is agreement on small issues.

A big gap exists on larger matters.

As of right now, a clear-cut settlement has yet to be reached.

Thirteen area town officials, including Town Managers Bob Peabody of Bridgton and Jim Smith of Sebago, attended an informational session with SAD 61 leaders last Thursday night at Lake Region Vocational Center.

The audience was primarily made up of nine Sebago residents.

SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith gave town officials an update as to where negotiations stand, and handed out copies of the latest proposal. Flipping through the proposal, town officials quickly saw that it is a working document with numerous pages containing “strikethrough“ wording with new language inserted.

“We’ve had five to six exchanges,” Smith said. “This is not inexpensive since each revision is being reviewed by legal counsel.”

Initially, the driving force for the withdrawal consideration has been the perceived threat that SAD 61 will, at some point, close Sebago Elementary. Residents asked the SAD 61 school board for a guarantee to keep the SES open for 10 years, but were rebuffed.

While Sebago is studying the costs of operating its own elementary school system, state law does require that the town also secure a “guarantee acceptance” agreement with a school system, which will provide instruction for middle school and high school students.

SAD 61 has offered to be Sebago’s guarantee acceptance partner for a 10-year period with the stipulation that the district receive all of the town’s middle and high school students.

Sebago could decide to house K-6, and then tuition grades 7-12. SAD 61 would agree to that scenario.

Smith pointed out, however, that the Sebago Withdrawal Committee is changing direction in its latest counterproposal. Certain language leads to school choice. Smith told town officials this arrangement would pose a variety of problems including staffing and overcrowding at facilities, which could lead to expansion projects. According to the proposal, Sebago would balk at assuming debt for expansion at the middle and high schools.

Despite a projection study, SAD 61 numbers are growing, not declining. The study set numbers at 1,560, yet SAD 61 is currently at a 1,831 student population.

Bridgton selectman Bernie King asked Smith whether SAD 61 would be responsible for transporting Sebago students to the middle and high schools?

Smith responded, “No.” As part of the withdrawal agreement, SAD 61 would turn over some buses to Sebago, and the town would be responsible for transporting students to Naples facilities.

Smith also pointed out that if Sebago withdraws (which will require a citizens’ vote, as well as approval from Maine’s educational commissioner), the town would be responsible for its own central office and superintendent.

One major cost could be special education services. At the moment, costs for special services are absorbed by all four towns. If Sebago is alone, the town would be required to pay for special services needed by a child or children, which in some cases can be very expensive.

Another sticky point in the latest proposal from the Sebago Withdrawal Committee is the town’s desire to claim 14% of money in the Capital Reserve Account at the time the town leaves SAD 61. Smith said SAD 61 would be reluctant to part with Capital Reserve funds.

Many town officials wondered what financial effect SAD 61 would experience if Sebago leaves the fold. Smith said Sebago currently contributes just over $3 million. He pointed out that the loss of tax dollars would be somewhat offset by decreasing operating costs and maintenance at Sebago Elementary. Smith also noted that some funding could be recaptured by accepting tuition students from Sebago. Smith expects there would be a period of “adjustment” in terms of staffing if Sebago pulls out.

In summing up current negotiations, Casco selectman Grant Plummer used the word “divorce,” which then created some interesting dialogue.

While Sebago town manager Jim Smith had told himself to simply listen and not speak, he decided to jump into the conversation saying that in many divorces, the wife keeps the kids and house — in Sebago’s case, the town wants Capital Reserve money.

He also clarified that the idea of putting a young child on a bus and transporting the child to either Naples or Casco elementary schools pushed local residents to look into operating their own school.

Sebago school board member Joe McMahon said the whole matter is quite simple — Sebago’s elementary school-aged children should be educated in their hometown.

“Sebago sees the withdrawal action not as divorce, but as protection from abuse,” McMahon said in an e-mail to The News.

Phil Lowe, who serves as treasurer for the Sebago Withdrawal Committee, wanted to dispel a rumor that the town had been turned down by another school system as the guarantee acceptance partner.

“It’s not true,” he said.

Negotiations will continue, and Smith will keep town officials updated on where the matter stands.

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