Sunday, May 26, 2013
AUGUSTA -- Three years have passed since the first regional school units formed in response to Maine's consolidation law.
While some new school districts have worked together with little conflict, in several others time has either failed to mollify concerns that accompanied the formation of the districts or created new tensions that are driving communities to seek a way out.
Sixteen municipalities have taken the first official step toward withdrawing from regional school units that began forming in 2009. In many others, residents are circulating petitions to trigger the initial vote or just starting to explore their options.
The reasons are nearly universal. Critics say they haven't seen the financial benefits of school consolidation, and they miss having local control over budgets, curriculum decisions and buildings.
Some say the effort to force consolidation through financial penalties was ill-advised and that such school units just won't work, at least in some communities.
"I think the feeling was that the whole concept of an RSU was shoved down our throats, and it didn't digest well," said Ray Bates, chairman of the Windsor Board of Selectmen. The town is starting to explore leaving eight-town RSU 12. "It didn't set well with people, and now that we've seen it in action for a while, we're even less thrilled with it."
The municipalities that have approved petitions to withdraw from their school districts -- one of the first steps in a lengthy and complicated process -- are spread across the state, from Arundel in York County to Ludlow in Aroostook County.
Some school units are facing clusters of potential withdrawals.
Ellsworth-based RSU 24 could lose three of its 12 municipalities, and Belfast-based RSU 20 could lose six of nine, according to the Maine Department of Education and published reports.
"Divorces," as the Maine Department of Education refers to withdrawals in some of its documents, could completely dismantle the three-municipality RSU 26, where Glenburn and Veazie both want to separate from Orono and each other.
Westport Island and Wiscasset voted last week to form committees to negotiate exits from RSU 12.
Also in central Maine, Monmouth voted last week to negotiate a withdrawal from Hallowell-based RSU 2. Richmond residents have discussed leaving RSU 2 but have taken little action on the matter, and conversations in Hallowell are turning to whether other options might be better for the city.
Some China residents have organized a meeting for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the China Baptist Church to talk about whether the town should leave five-town Oakland-based RSU 18.
Leaving a regional school unit starts with a withdrawal petition, which voters must approve on a secret ballot. The petition authorizes forming a negotiating committee and funding it.
None of the committees in central Maine have been appointed.
Municipal officials and the regional school unit appoint members of the committee to hammer out all the details of the separation, and the resulting agreement goes to the commissioner of education and then to voters at a second referendum.
A law passed in the last session of the Legislature lowered the threshold for approving the withdrawal agreement to a simple majority, from the previous two-thirds majority, which goes back into effect in 2015.
The same process has been in place since the creation of school administrative units as part of a round of consolidation in the 1940s.
In the last year, two municipalities have divorced school districts formed before 2009. Portage Lake left Ashland-based RSU 32 and Starks left Madison-based RSU 59 to join Farmington-based RSU 9.
In regional school units formed since the 2007 consolidation law, municipalities must wait 30 months before gathering signatures for a petition to withdraw. Because the earliest of those districts started operations on July 1, 2009, many cities and towns first became eligible on Jan. 1.
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