November 22, 2012

Palermo voters consider RSU 12 withdrawal at Dec. 5 town meeting

Town seeks $15,000 and formation of committee to begin withdrawal process

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

PALERMO -- With residents worried by loss of local control and a coming tax hike, Palermo could become the third town to seek withdrawal from Regional School Unit 12.

Grader, trails also on agenda

In addition to the issue of forming an RSU withdrawal committee, town residents will vote on two other articles at a special town meeting.

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, at Palermo Consolidated School. An informational session on the warrant articles will follow a public hearing about the withdrawal vote, starting at 9 a.m. Saturday at Palermo Town Hall.

Residents will decide whether to buy a road grader at what Selectman Holly Harmon said is a significant savings. The purchase would require appropriating $86,000 from the town's grader fund and $64,000 from surplus funds.

Palermo also would trade in its existing grader, which Harmon said is from 1997 and needs repairs.

The other article stems from a request by a teacher at the Palermo school. The teacher wants permission for students and volunteers to create trails on a piece of town-owned property adjacent to Palermo Consolidated School.

-- Susan McMillan

Residents will vote at a special town meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 5, whether to appropriate $15,000 and create a committee that would negotiate a withdrawal agreement with RSU 12.

Westport Island and Wiscasset approved similar measures in June, and committees in those towns have drawn up proposals to leave RSU 12, which also includes Alna, Chelsea, Somerville, Whitefield and Windsor.

A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday at the Town Office for residents to learn more about the withdrawal vote and the findings of a school structure exploratory committee organized by selectmen earlier this fall.

Following the hearing, the selectmen will host an informational session about two other articles on the warrant at the special town meeting, which will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, at Palermo Consolidated School.

The withdrawal vote was initiated by a citizen petition presented to the Board of Selectmen by resident Dennis Kinney. Even before then, selectmen had fielded concerns about RSU 12, said Selectman Holly Harmon.

The district has reduced the number of teachers and education technicians at Palermo's K-8 school, Harmon said, and some parents feel the quality of education has suffered.

Palermo has only two representatives on the 21-member RSU 12 school board, and a new cost-sharing plan approved in a district-wide referendum earlier this month could increase Palermo's school taxes by more than 20 percent.

The new cost allocation will be phased in over three years. If the RSU 12 budget and Palermo student population figures hold steady next year, Palermo's obligation would increase by more than $80,000.

The cost-sharing plan is likely to increase the local tax burden significantly on Palermo, Somerville and Windsor. Out of the eight towns, only Somerville voted down the plan.

Harmon said she thinks many voters did not understand the vaguely worded ballot question.

"Now that the word has gotten around more, we've heard from citizens in Palermo who are concerned with the huge increase that's going to be on Palermo next year," she said.

The other two towns negotiating withdrawal from RSU 12, Westport Island and Wiscasset, would be the biggest beneficiaries of the new cost allocation. Complaints in those towns rest in large part on the perception that they shoulder an outsize share of local taxes in the district.

"The reason that we have a withdrawal committee on Westport Island is because the residents of Westport Island felt that the cost was prohibitive, and it needed to be changed," said Jerry Bodmer, chairman of his town's withdrawal committee. "Had that cost proposal been in effect before this all got started, this movement for withdrawal would not have started."

Bodmer believes most residents' complaints will be allayed by the new cost allocation, but he said Department of Education officials advised the committee that they are legally required to carry through the process, which will culminate in a second public vote.

Westport Island's committee submitted their draft of a withdrawal agreement in September, Bodmer said, and they're waiting for a response from RSU 12.

Wiscasset's withdrawal committee is at the same stage, also waiting for a response to their proposal, said committee member Jeff Slack, a selectman.

Slack said he is not sure how the savings from the new cost-sharing plan will affect perceptions of the school district in Wiscasset, where there are also concerns about local control and school choice.

Wiscasset is divided. Slack said one faction thinks the withdrawal committee is not moving fast enough, another thinks they're pushing too quickly, and a third thought that June's withdrawal referendum was a nonbinding, advisory vote.

Slack warned that if Palermo residents vote yes, they are committing the town to a lengthy, involved separation.

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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