Withdrawal process — ‘It’s a negotiating tool’

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

SEBAGO — Lisa Johnson fully understands why residents here are adamant about reaching an agreement with SAD 61 to keep their community school open or they will seek to withdraw from the district.

A former resident of Cornish, Johnson was disappointed when SAD 55 decided to close the town’s elementary school.

“They thought it would save taxpayers money,” she told about 70 people who attended a special withdrawal meeting at the Sebago Town Hall. “We fought to keep it open, but it was closed. The next year, they closed the Baldwin school.”

Johnson told Sebago residents it was “proactive” on their part to consider the withdrawal process as a means to negotiate with SAD 61 officials to protect the future of Sebago Elementary.

“When the (Baldwin) school closed, the town lost its heart,” wrote Patricia Barbour of Hiram, in a letter which was read by Study Committee member Phil Lowe.

For years, Sebago residents say they’ve heard talk at the district level about the possibility of closing the elementary school as a cost-saving measure. Although no formal talks of closure have occurred, Study Committee members say there have been enough writings on the wall to come to the conclusion that closure is a strong possibility.

One perceived threat is the proposed Crooked River project. The district will seek to renovate the Casco facility and add more square footage to accommodate three grade levels and a student population of 350 — enough room to house Sebago students, Study Committee members say. The SAD 61 Building Committee met Tuesday night at the Central Office to discuss a revamped plan, which would lower the project cost.

District officials, however, continue to say the Crooked River project and the future of Sebago Elementary are two separate issues.

Feeling they have been backed into a corner, Study Committee members say the withdrawal process is the one tool that can bring SAD 61 to the negotiating table to settle the matter one way or another.

“It’s a negotiating tool…Right now, there is no incentive for the School Board and Sebago to get together and renegotiate. That’s the problem,” committee member Allen Crabtree told residents. “It put us on a level playing field with the school district.”

Without the withdrawal process, Sebago has no legal standing to negotiate a pact with SAD 61 nor the ability to formally look into other options, such as joining a nearby school district.

Crabtree sees the withdrawal process as a means to remove the threat of closing Sebago Elementary while also protecting what is best for local students and taxpayers.

Crabtree emphasized that the goal would be to remain with SAD 61, if an agreement can be struck. If negotiations fail, Sebago can consider other options regarding how to educate local children.

He added that the process does offer opportunities for the town to pull the plug on withdrawal (see accompanying withdrawal flowchart).

Using a seven-minute PowerPoint, Crabtree gave a quick synopsis of “How did we get to this point?”

Some items touched on included:

  • Sebago Elementary’s student population has declined since 1996. Then, the school had 164 students. Today, the number is down to 79. Part of the dip, however, was due to the district’s decision in 2008 to move all Grade 6 classes to the lower level of Lake Region Middle School.

Study Committee members and Friends of Sebago Elementary point out that the “threat” of closure likely has hurt the town’s ability to draw or even keep young families, thus being a factor in declining school enrollment.

  • If Sebago Elementary closed, some 4 and 5 year olds would face up to 1½ hour bus rides to and from schools in Casco and Naples.
  • To close Sebago Elementary, it would require a 2/3 vote of the school board and majority vote of Sebago voters. The town could elect to pay to keep the school open (which Baldwin did for a year), at an annual cost of $591,402 (based on recent figures). This would be a hike of $187 per year for properties valued at $100,000. Sebago, also, would still be required to pay 14.3% of SAD 61’s budget.
  • Renegotiating the town’s contract with SAD 61 (it is 50 years old), the town could seek guarantees that SES will remain open, seek a more equitable valuation formula, and consider school choice options (educate elementary-aged students in Sebago and send middle and high school students to other nearby schools).
  • Twenty-five other Maine towns have withdrawn from school districts since 2013 — seven joined other SADs/RSUs, and 18 operate their own schools.

The final slide explained the vote on Feb. 2. Not only does it address withdrawal, if voters approve the article, residents will also authorize $25,000 from the undesignated fund balance to be used by the Withdrawal Committee for expenses such as printing.

Teresa Sadak of Raymond was involved when Windham proposed to build a new $40 to $50 million middle school with no state funding. By entering the withdrawal process, Raymond negotiated a deal which put the cost of the new Windham school solely on the backs of taxpayers’ there, as well as changing the funding percentages by 2018 to a 64-36% split. Prior to the negotiation, Windham paid 55% of school costs, while Raymond covered 45%.

A Question/Answer session closed out the meeting. Several residents see the school issue as a “quality of life, quality of our town” matter while others say parents are simply trying to “protect our kids, it’s our job.”

One resident sees withdrawal as a chance for Sebago Elementary to gain a little more equality with other SAD 61 schools by negotiating some improvements.

Chris Balchunas summed it up by looking at the building projects SAD 61 has undertaken over the years, from renovation and new construction at Stevens Brook, additions to the high school, renovations at the middle school, new schools in Casco and Naples, and now proposed renovations at Crooked River.

“We’re back to Casco. We got skipped again,” Balchunas said. “Our action (withdrawal) will speak louder than our words.”

Withdrawal flowchart

3 Petition to withdraw

3 Special town meeting

Referendum vote, Feb. 2, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

  • If the vote fails, process ends
  • If vote passes, these steps follow:

Written notice to SAD 61

Selectmen and School Board members appoint Withdrawal Committee

Committee meets with SAD 61

Negotiate

Based on negotiations, the next steps can follow two paths:

  1. Revised contract to remain with SAD 61

Voters vote to suspend withdrawal

Process ends

  1. Withdrawal agreement

Department of Ed review

Public hearing

Optional referendum vote to suspend withdrawal

Final withdrawal agreement

Public hearing

Referendum vote

  • If the vote fails, process ends
  • If the vote passes, DOE issues Certificate of Withdrawal

 

 

Please follow and like us: