April 20, 2018
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Houlton councilors oppose school merger

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — With little discussion, the Houlton Town Council voted unanimously to encourage residents to vote against the school consolidation plan.

The vote took place during a meeting Monday evening.

Councilors have been discussing the school consolidation plans for some time, and two councilors represented the town on the Regional School Unit planning committee.

On Election Day, voters in Houlton and the other towns will decide whether to move forward with the proposed regional school consolidation plan.

The proposal calls for SAD 29 in Houlton, SAD 70 in Hodgdon, SAD 14 in Danforth, Community School District 9 in Dyer Brook and the municipal units of Hersey, Moro Plantation, Orient and Bancroft to consolidate to form the Tri-County Regional School Unit.

Voters will be asked to approve or reject the plan. If the referendum passes, the new RSU will consist of students from parts of Aroostook, Penobscot and Washington counties.

The reorganization plan and the referendum are in response to the law passed in June 2007 requiring that the state’s 290 school districts be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units governed by regional school boards. Seventeen reorganization plans around the state will go before voters on Election Day, and some others will vote after that, before the final deadline of Jan. 30, 2009.

In their resolution, Houlton’s councilors said the plan submitted to the state would result in a shifting of expense from towns that pay a significant local share of school costs to those that do not pay much local share, such as Houlton. They also stated that the seven-year financial cost projections for Houlton were potentially understated and failed to address increases in Houlton’s assessed values and inflation in the consolidated school budget.

They also proclaimed that the combined consolidated school district budget would require a total local share of school costs in excess of $4 million by the seventh year, and that future state funding for schools was uncertain and subject to change by the Legislature.

Overall, councilors said, the plan was not in the best interest of Houlton taxpayers.

During the meeting, Brian McGuire, the chairman of the SAD 29 board, said he had attended a meeting in Augusta at which 93 other school districts across the state were represented. He said a vote was taken to show how the districts felt about the school consolidation law.

The vote was 81-12 against the legislation, he added.

“I was shocked that so many districts were against it. The other towns there were concerned about rural areas and the impact that the law will have on them,” said McGuire.

Councilor Sue Tortello said she would put her full support behind the resolution.

“I think this is exactly what we should be doing to advocate for the taxpayers,” she said during the meeting.

Councilors voted 5-0 in support of the resolution with only Councilor Nancy Ketch absent from the meeting.

David Connerty-Marin, communications director for the state Department of Education, said he felt the residents of Houlton or the students in SAD 29 would not be well-served by a vote against the plan.

“These are tough economic times, not just here, but across the nation,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “We have extremely limited resources in the coming years, and we are trying to reduce costs outside the classroom without impacting education. We believe combining administrations is the best way to do that and to save small schools.”

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