To the editor:
As Alna’s Board of Selectmen, we welcomed last week’s letter from Judy Fossel, because it gives us an opportunity to make the facts about school choice in Alna – and our position – clear.
As Ms. Fossel states, Alna does have high taxes. Unlike most Lincoln County towns, we have virtually no expensive, seasonal, waterfront property (with owners who pay taxes but demand few services) or commercial property. Most of our taxes go to roads and education. Education is 61 percent of our town budget; it’s almost a million dollars a year.
As for school choice, contrary to what Ms. Fossel says, Alna residents have never voted on school choice at all – let alone “overwhelmingly.” The history is this: Starting in the mid-’60s, we contracted with Wiscasset to send all K-8 children there. In the early 2000s, Wiscasset offered to let us make that a non-exclusive contract, and our then-school board accepted the offer, thus creating, by default, “choice.” The citizens have never voted on the issue one way or the other.
That said, we selectmen, like virtually every citizen of Alna, favor school choice of some kind. We have no schools of our own and there are many good schools nearby. Thus, it is both an attractive option and our only practical option.
Also, contrary to Ms. Fossel’s claim, no selectman said choice is “bleeding the RSU dry” or anything like that. That quote is simply false – and it is wrong. Every child we tuition – to either a public or a private school – costs Alna exactly the same amount: $13,873 per year.
Now we get to the heart of the matter: Alna’s school choice subsidy – particularly our private school subsidy – does make Alna a very attractive place to live. Only Alna and Westport and a tiny handful of other towns in the state offer private school choice. During a time when Maine’s school population declined by almost 10 percent, Alna tuitioned 20 percent more students. As a result, we, our town clerk, and the RSU superintendent must make sure that people who claim to “reside” here actually do so.
Here’s some examples we’ve faced: for over two years, the superintendent has been forced to play a game of cat-and-mouse with a couple with very questionable residency who send two children to a private school out of state at Alna’s expense: more than $26,000 per year.
Two years ago, Ms. Fossel herself rented a yurt in the woods with no heat, water, electricity, or septic to a young mother who then attempted to claim it as her year-round residence to enroll her child in a private school.
Another person from a neighboring town tried to claim an office in a house she owned, but rented out to a third party, was her residence as well. A vigilant past town clerk caught and stopped the last two examples, and alerted the superintendent to the first one.
Determining residency is tough. We have sought advice on the question from current and former education officials in Augusta who know more about state law than we do. Unfortunately, they have been of little help, except to say that the situations like those we describe, and others we continue to face, abuse the intent of the law. The court cases that address residency don’t guide us much either, because they did not envision a unique choice system like ours.
The three of us do not enjoy being “policemen” of residency, and neither does the superintendent or our town clerk. It’s tedious and it erodes your faith in human nature. But every single citizen the three of us have encountered has said that they expect us to continue doing it. After all, as Ms. Fossel says, our taxes are high, and most of it goes to education. Imagine what they would be if we didn’t keep a watchful eye on the legitimacy of our tuition costs?
David Abbott, First Selectman
Melissa Spinney, Second Selectman
Douglas Baston, Third Selectman