The July 9 public hearing on the merits of Wiscasset’s proposed withdrawal agreement centered mostly around one subject: cost.
Wiscasset has been in the process of withdrawing from Sheepscot Valley RSU 12 for over a year, and the public hearing was the next step in the process after Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen gave conditional approval to the agreement negotiated between the town’s and district’s withdrawal committees.
According to the agreement, Wiscasset would take back its three schools and bus garage from the RSU and operate as its own school administrative unit.
Responding to questions, Wiscasset’s educational consultants Raymond Poulin and Norm Higgins stuck with their estimates shared earlier this year of a $1.5 million one-time cost to withdraw – including things like construction debt payments to the RSU and over $700,000 in summer salaries for the first summer after withdrawal – and an additional annual cost of $1.4 million to operate a Wiscasset school administrative unit.
The estimated $1.4 million increase to the annual cost of education is above and beyond the $5.1 million Wiscasset paid to be in the RSU for fiscal year 2012-2013, Poulin said. The estimate is based on an analysis of what the RSU pays to run Wiscasset schools currently, what Wiscasset paid for its schools before joining the RSU, and a projection of administrative costs, Poulin said.
The estimate does not represent any assumptions on what a future Wiscasset school board might or might not choose to do, but instead looks at how the schools are run currently, Poulin said.
“They can make it worse or better,” he said.
Higgins said a school board probably would not be elected until late spring 2014 if withdrawal is approved in a fall 2013 vote, and so would likely not be able to do much with the budget given the short amount of time before the next fiscal year. A school board also would likely not be able to move forward with any potential decisions to consolidate or close school buildings because those processes take around 10 to 12 months to complete, he said.
Geoffrey Hole, legal counsel for the Wiscasset Withdrawal Committee, said Wiscasset does not necessarily need to pay the one-time $1.5 million all in the first year. The amount could be borrowed and paid off in whatever time period the town chooses, which would limit the impact on taxpayers for the first year, he said.
Ed Polewarczyk, chair of the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen, asked what happens if voters approve the withdrawal, but do not pass a budget, which is a requirement of the agreement.
“You guys are stuck,” RSU 12 board of directors Chair Hilary Holm said. “You do not automatically fall back into the RSU.”
If voters do not approve a budget for the school administrative unit, the school board will have to take feedback from the voters and try to incorporate it into a new budget while operating on the last voter-approved budget, Higgins said.
Doug Smith, former chairman of the Wiscasset Education Research Panel, a group once tasked with researching withdrawal options for the town, asked if the RSU had calculated what the impacts would be on the district if the other three withdrawing towns – Winsdor, Westport Island, and Palermo – successfully withdrew.
Holm said those calculations had not been performed.
Smith encouraged the Wiscasset Withdrawal Committee to look into that scenario because of its potential implications for Wiscasset if it stays in the RSU. When the people of Wiscasset voted to fund the withdrawal committee, it was also to consider such “what-ifs,” he said.
One clause in the proposed withdrawal agreement calls for Wiscasset to accept RSU 12 students for up to 10 years, as long as Wiscasset offers the relevant programming and has the space for the students.
Wiscasset High School principal and resident Deb Taylor asked if that language meant Wiscasset has to accept any and all students from the RSU, or if they would have the option to refuse a student.
“We’d have to take them,” said Wiscasset committee member Jeff Slack.
If Wiscasset closes a school or ceases to offer certain programming, the RSU would be responsible for their own students, Hole said.
Outside students do bring in outside money to the district, and sending school districts are responsible for any extra costs such as those from special education students, Poulin said.
With the public hearing complete, the committees have the option of adjusting their agreement and resubmitting it to Bowen for approval or submitting it as-is, within the next 30 days, Holm said. Bowen could still require changes even if it is submitted as-is, and any changes to the agreement would necessitate another public hearing, she said.
According to state statute, Wiscasset’s voters will have final say on whether to withdraw, and are required to have over 50 percent of the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election for a vote in favor of withdrawal to pass.
“834 [voters] exactly,” Slack said.
Committee members have said they anticipate a November vote on the withdrawal agreement, but the date will ultimately be set by Bowen.
“It’s important that, if this means a lot to the town, that people get out and vote,” said Wiscasset committee member Jason Downing.