Wednesday, May 22, 2013
By Craig Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org
MONMOUTH -- Town officials will begin the process of negotiating a withdrawal agreement with Regional School Unit 2, despite concerns from state education officials that the vote that kicked off the process may not have been legal.
Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen questioned the language used on a petition submitted by the town of Monmouth in its quest to withdraw from RSU 2.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
The state's concerns relate to wording in a petition and the warrant article upon which it was based that selectmen presented to voters last month at Town Meeting.
Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen recently told the town that the petition and warrant article failed to include the phrase "for withdrawal" as required by state statute. Bowen called the omission "significant," but town attorney David Perkins argued in an opinion letter to selectmen that voters likely understood what was being asked despite the omission. Perkins said testimony at a public hearing, media coverage and common sense indicate the public understood the petition and warrant article were asking whether residents wanted to leave RSU 2, which also includes Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell and Richmond.
"From what you have shared, it appears that the voters understood that the petition was on withdrawal from the RSU, given no questions were asked and there was no confusion expressed by the voters regarding the article," Perkins wrote in his three-page opinion. "Importantly, the statute requires that the article for withdrawal must be in 'substantially' the form provided in the statute, so a word for word recitation of the statutory language is not required."
But Perkins acknowledged the omission left the opening for a legal challenge. He said Department of Education officials confirmed at least one person has called inquiring about the petition language.
"If someone brought a legal challenge based on the petition and article missing the words, 'for withdrawal,' a court could decide that the petition was not substantially in the form required by statute," Perkins said. "If a voter testified that there was confusion as a result of the two missing words, then the risk of an adverse court decision would obviously be elevated."
A court challenge would, at least, create confusion and require the petition process start from scratch, Perkins said.
Monmouth schools operated independently until 2009, when the town joined RSU 2 as part of the Maine Department of Education's statewide consolidation mandate. Residents have balked at decisions made by the regional school board -- perhaps most notably its decision to eliminate Monmouth Academy's industrial arts program.
Town Manager Curtis Lunt said selectmen at last Wednesday's meeting decided to move ahead with the withdrawal process despite Bowen's concerns about the warrant wording. The board created a four-person committee that will work with Regional School Unit 2 officials to hammer out parameters for the town's possible withdrawal from the RSU.
Lunt said the following individuals were appointed to the town's withdrawal committee: Douglas Ludewig, representing the board of selectmen; Ron Moody, who headed up the petition drive that forced last months' withdrawal vote; Annya Rice, a town representative on the RSU 2 board of directors; and Chris Trenholm, representing the public.
Ludewig, Moody and Rice have voiced support for leaving RSU 2.
Dawn Gallagher, of Hallowell, chairwoman of the RSU 2 board, has set an organizational meeting for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Monmouth Town Office, Lunt said.
The withdrawal committee will work with the RSU to negotiate financial parameters for withdrawal. It is likely the town would have to reimburse the RSU for infrastructure and equipment improvements made to town schools.
Once the withdrawal committee negotiates a settlement final withdrawal will only take place with approval from residents during another town wide vote. According to state law, if that vote takes places before January 1, 2015 final withdrawal would be approved by a simple majority. If the vote occurs after that day, however, withdrawal approval would require a two-thirds majority.
Perkins said when the agreement is finalized residents will again vote on a warrant article that will include the correct statutory language.
"Then the issues relating to the wording in the initial petition would likely be viewed as moot in the event of any challenge arising after the final vote on the withdrawal plan," Perkins said. "In such circumstances, the voters will have adopted the withdrawal plan by a final vote, free of any wording issues, after multiple public hearings."