Calais council urges school plan rejection

Posted Jan. 05, 2009, at 8:34 p.m.

CALAIS, Maine — The City Council at a special meeting Monday voted to urge taxpayers to reject the school administrative reorganization plan that it says is not in the best interest of the city.

A special election has been scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the City Building.

The question before voters is: “Do you favor approving the school administrative reorganization plan prepared by the Region #13 Reorganization Planning Committee to reorganize [the various school districts] into a regional school unit, with an effective date of July 1, 2009?”

Towns included in the proposed RSU plan are: Calais, Alexander, Robbinston, Baring Plantation, Crawford, Charlotte, Perry, Baileyville, Cooper, Grand Lake Stream Plantation, Meddybemps, Eastport, Princeton, Talmadge, Waite, Pembroke, Dennysville, Codyville, Topsfield and Vanceboro.

The reorganization plan was created 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 with the goal of streamlining operations and reducing costs. School districts that fail to formulate and ap-prove by referendum acceptable plans to consolidate administrative services face financial penalties.

City officials say the RSU plan, if approved, would cost Calais taxpayers more money to operate their schools.

City Manager Diane Barnes in her report to the City Council said earlier that under the plan the cost of education and the operation of the school department would be determined by each community’s real and personal property state valuation which is subject to taxation under state laws.

“The communities with higher values would pay a larger percentage for the cost of education, while communities with lower values would pay less,” she said. “What this means is Calais and Baileyville are the ‘big players’ in terms of total property valuation and would pay the largest percentage of the 20 municipality-unit school budget costs.”

Barnes said Monday that if Baileyville’s valuation were reduced because of possible changes at Domtar’s pulp mill, Calais would feel the impact.

“If Baileyville’s state valuation is reduced … then everybody else has to pick up the difference, and Calais would pick up the bulk of that,” she said.

Two years ago, the Montreal-based Domtar shut down its paper machine, leaving 150 people out of work. Although it continues to operate its pulp business, there are no guarantees as to how long the mill will function. Shortly after it shut down its paper machine, the company asked for a decrease in its valuation, which has af-fected everything from the town’s school budget to the municipal budget.

Councilor Joyce Maker, who is the council’s liaison to the Region 13 Reorganization Planning Committee, made the motion to encourage voters to reject the RSU plan. She said that she did not favor the RSU plan but she did favor an “alternative organizational structure” which would allow each community to have control over its school budgets. If the RSU plan is defeated, the Region 13 committee could begin work on the alternative plan.

Councilor Joe Cassidy seconded Maker’s motion.

“The RSU plan takes away complete local control for Calais and there are far too many financial questions that we just can’t get a handle on,” Cassidy said. “By going the [alternative organizational structure] route, we probably can retain more control and hopefully have a lot more certainty about what we are getting into.”

Union 106 Superintendent Jim Underwood, who attended the special council meeting Monday but did not participate, said afterward that under the RSU there would be one regional budget for all of the participating communities, whereas the alternative organizational structure plan would allow each community to develop its own school budgets.

School Union 106 includes Alexander, Baring Plantation, Calais, Crawford and Robbinston.

Although Underwood said he could not tell people how to vote, he urged people to learn all they could about the RSU and “vote for what they believe is in the best interest of their kids.”

Now it is up to the voters.

“They have a choice on Jan. 13, to vote the RSU plan in, but if they choose not to [and decide] to look at an [alternative organizational structure], they can choose to vote no,” Underwood said. “And that will not be met with a penalty as long as communities look at something else to reorganize.”

Maker suggested that voters learn more about the RSU plan before casting their ballot and suggested they either call the superintendent’s office at 454-7561 or Barnes at 454-2521.

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