HOULTON, Maine — Steve Fitzpatrick spent much of Tuesday evening trying to predict the future, as the SAD 29 superintendent stood for two hours in the gymnasium of Houlton High School, trying to tell residents what the district and taxpayers’ pocketbooks would look like in the coming years under the school consolidation law.
And the future, Fitzpatrick and other area superintendents told more than 60 residents during the meeting, looks bleak.
The superintendent outlined what planners predicted a consolidated district would look like on fiscal and educational levels within the next seven years.
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.
If voters reject the proposal, which was put together by a regional planning committee, districts have the option of submitting an alternative plan, including one that would allow them to move forward alone. That decision would mean financial penalties from the state, Fitzpatrick said, with the district predicted to lose an estimated $4 million over seven years if they do not consolidate.
According to estimates, Houlton will pay $689,544 more in local share over seven years, with Littleton paying $104,994 more and Monticello paying $95,036 more. The regional planning committee predicted that taxpayers in all of the towns in SAD 70 and CSD 9 would pay less by year seven, but all of the towns in SADs 29, 25 and 14 would pay more.
The regional planning committee said Houlton’s tax rate could jump by as much as three or four points over seven years if the plan moves forward.
Three of the superintendents who attended the meeting — Fitzpatrick, CSD 9 Superintendent Terry Comeau and SAD 70 Superintendent Robert McDaniel — told attendees they would be voting against the proposal because they believed cuts would ensue that would hurt students, their education and the regional economy.
Comeau said the plan was “not fleshed-out enough” to earn his support.
Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, and Rep. Richard Cleary, D-Houlton, who both attended the meeting, said they did not believe the consolidation law would benefit the region.
“This was done on the fast track,” said Sherman, adding that he felt the law had been “rammed through,” and that more time was needed to craft a plan that would not be so detrimental to local schools.
Cleary also said he did not support the law.
“I think that we are very frugal in Aroostook County, and our area superintendents and school boards found cost savings even before this law was passed,” said Cleary. “This plan will cost Houlton more money in the long term.”
No one spoke in support of the proposal during the meeting.
After the meeting, however, Kim Martin of Dyer Brook, who has no children in school, said she was leaning toward voting to support consolidation.
“I’ve heard a lot of negative stuff about it, but I think it is a good idea,” she said. “The population is getting older and things are so much more expensive now. Something has to give. I think voting to support consolidation will send a message that these schools have to start making some bigger cuts.”
“I know that we are probably looking at less athletics and trips and things in order to pay for more academic programs, which is going to be painful,” said Lee Baker of Island Falls. “But right now, I am supporting consolidation.”
The Town Council and the Houlton Chamber of Commerce are encouraging residents to vote no on the question on Nov. 4.