Divorce is not an immediate option for dissatisfied regional school unit (RSU) partners.
RSU 12 Supt. Greg Potter believes the unit “has a lot of potential,” despite nearly universal dissatisfaction among the eight member towns reflected at the polls last Tuesday.
Voters statewide approved keeping the state school consolidation law 60 to 40 percent, while seven RSU 12 towns – Alna, Wiscasset, Westport Island, Whitefield, Somerville, Windsor, Palermo – favored repealing the law. The eighth town, Chelsea, rejected repeal by a narrow 21-vote margin, 539-561.
Rural communities, which have struggled most with consolidation law requirements, were its staunchest opponents Nov. 3.
“At this point,” Potter said, “you have to react to what’s happening with the law, the process.” His unit, also known as Sheepscot Valley RSU, will stand. It may be “cumbersome and inefficient at present,” he said, but “we are moving forward with planning as if it’s continuing.”
If the law changes, it’s possible other municipalities will look elsewhere for partners, he said. In the meantime, “we are an entity, a school system, we need a budget and we’re going to keep working.”
RSU 12’s three attempts to pass a budget since last June have failed. The fourth attempt will be scheduled at the board’s regular meeting Thursday in Windsor.
Proposed changes in consolidation law will confront the next legislative session, Potter remarked. There is especially “strong sentiment” on lack of a process for municipalities to pull out and seek other partners, he said, and on the two-step voting procedure which requires adopting a budget at a district meeting and then validating it within 10 days at the ballot box.
The validation vote process was adopted out of concern some years ago that too few citizens at town meetings were voting on the biggest part of a town’s budget; advocates sought “transparency.” On the other side, validation vote skeptics represented people willing to educate themselves about school costs and then vote knowledgably.
Miller said there also may be movement in the Legislature to reduce the size of the district, “although Alna, Westport Island and Somerville are too small to stand alone,” she added.
From north to south, the district is about 35 miles long.
Miller has submitted a bill on behalf of her RSU 12 constituents to “figure out a method to withdraw from the unit.” While the law governing School Administrative Districts, after which RSUs are patterned, allows withdrawal from SADs, “in the RSU world you still need to be in some arrangement,” she said. “I have to help structure some language that has the expectation that the town withdrawing will find a new arrangement” and that the new affiliation happens within a specified time frame.
Her measure and others proposed by other legislators – including a request to create fair education funding for RSUs, and another to require the state to pay the costs of school administration consolidation for any school that complied with state law by June 2009 – were tabled until after the Nov. 3 vote to see if consolidation law would prevail.
Miller expects a hearing to be held soon on the bills. She’s optimistic about her measure’s chances, not least because the only high school in RSU 12, which by law must accept all students, is “down on the coast,” far from the northern tier towns.
During the regional planning process two years ago, committee members held discussions with Erskine Academy but the private South China school “for a variety of reasons couldn’t take all comers. We need a situation where somebody has to take our kids,” she said. “Our solution was the alternative high school.”
That program still functions in the former School Union 132 central office in Windsor. It might be a fallback for a newly affiliated unit, Miller surmised.
Overall, however, withdrawal as a remedy isn’t really on Rier’s radar. “There’s no way to undo the fact (that the eight towns) are an RSU and they need to have an approved budget, to be legal, by June 2010,” he said. Additionally, state education subsidies will be even more severely curtailed next year ($38 million) and in 2011 ($39 million) than they were last year ($27 million).
Any legislation seeking change would need to include a process addressing all contractual agreements made within the RSU, he said, and such matters as whether a withdrawing entity would end up being a single noncompliant school unit or another unit that would be compliant. “It’s not just a case of a town deciding they don’t want to belong,” he pointed out.
Finding a way to work together should be foremost, Rier believes. He regrets that budget struggles in RSU 12 “take attention away from things that could enhance students.” The board is laboring in “an unsupportive environment,” he noted.
“I would argue that other RSUs have worked out their problems. It was a very difficult process. It’s not surprising that assumptions made a year ago didn’t work out. The law allows for those things to be fixed,” Rier said.
Alna, for example, had only $50,000 in fund balances (compared to Chelsea and Whitefield, with a half million each). Its education budget shot up 36 percent, chair of the board of selectmen Billie Willard said Tuesday, and the mil rate soared to 22.5 versus last year’s 16.75. In 2008 the town’s tax commitment for schools was $537,298; this year, it’s $730,744.
“Sending out the tax bills was very hard,” Willard said. “I feel hard hit, for the town.” Personally, she felt the blow also: her own taxes jumped $1000. Others experienced hikes of $4000. (Alna voted by a 2-1 margin to repeal consolidation law.)
Willard said she initially made a mistake in committing taxes, but has since corrected the error. When the final audit is done, she expects there may be enough to help lower taxes next year, “but not by a lot.”
She said some townspeople are clamoring to form a committee that would analyze the costs of belonging to the RSU. Before that can happen, she wants to know what is legally possible.
“This RSU is going to be a learning curve for all of us,” she predicted.
“We are looking at fewer state dollars every year into the future. This is serious, extremely serious,” Potter said.
He thinks student numbers in RSU 12 will be stable “but my fear is each town will see an increase in property valuation by the state,” and this increase pushes up the local contribution to education. “Your local capacity to pay goes up. That was the bulk of the issue this year. It made for a $1.4 million drop in the state subsidy,” he said.
Decisions for revising the budget will be made at Thursday’s meeting. All non-emergency expenses, such as supplies and field trips, have been frozen, Potter said, leaving room for “creative” applications of grant funds and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. Additionally, certain vacancies will not be filled. The intent is to make reductions equivalent to what the state’s curtailment will be.
Already the superintendent is looking ahead to 2011, eying possible economies in special education, staffing, adult education, and a different approach to contracting for copiers.
Of special education, he said, “We send 36 students out of district, for $1 million in cost. What if we serviced a number of those kids locally? We’re also looking at food service rates. We think we can make significant improvements. That’s what the voters want and the taxpayers expect.”
Also to be decided Thursday are the next dates for the fourth budget adoption meeting and the follow-up validation vote. He prefers a January vote when towns’ audit numbers will be known and “a more solid (curtailment) number from the state will be available,” he said.
Especially important, Potter believes, is to set up a “visioning community-based collaborative process to get input from all stakeholders.” If a town or two wants to look at other options, fine, he said. “But we need to educate our kids.”
The board’s regular meeting Nov. 12 begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Windsor Elementary School gym.