For many reasons, many residents from northern Penobscot and Piscataquis counties rejected school consolidation in a recent referendum, not the least being resentment of a state mandate, a state-appointed regionalization facilitator said recently.
“In the back of their minds, I think most people had a fundamental attitude, even if they supported it,” said Robert Kautz, who helped two organization committees from the Howland-Lee-Lincoln and Katahdin regions shape proposals largely voted down last Tuesday.
“I think everybody would say, ‘We don’t like being told. I will vote for it, but I don’t like being told we have to, being made to do it,’” he said. “Whether they saw a benefit to it or not, it got clouded by it being a mandated thing.”
Kautz spent almost a year at meetings once a month helping the two large committees shape two plans, only one of which was passed, and that partially.
Residents of SAD 67, or Chester, Lincoln and Mattawamkeag voted to approve the regionalization plan that forms their towns into a Regional School Unit, but most of the towns of SADs 30 and 31, Union 113 and assorted other freestanding towns that would have joined that RSU voted against it.
Katahdin region towns’ failed in their effort to pass an Alternative Organizational Structure proposal that would have united them.
State law prohibits individual municipalities from forming new school units if other towns within their existing units reject the idea. Legislators have submitted bills repealing the law that requires the assessment of fines of $10,000 to $200,000 by July 1 to those who rejected reorganization, but without the bill’s passage those fines will be levied, he said.
That was part of what incurred resentment, Kautz said, the “do it or else” posture the state took.
Other concerns included a fear of losing control of their schools and of closing schools that helped define towns’ identities, even though regionalization plans carried no school closure proposals, Kautz said.
“In general, you constantly hear about the loss of control,” he said.
The tentative nature of the two plans was another strike against them, Kautz said. In the Katahdin region, Sunrise School District proponents opted not to guarantee or even specify their plan’s benefits, fearing making promises that as-yet unelected school board members would have to keep.
Another reason for failure: The issue failed to generate any significant voter interest. Voter turnouts were low. In Lincoln, for example, 329 voters participated. That’s unusually poor even for a non-Election Day referendum, Lincoln Town Manager and Town Clerk Lisa Goodwin said.
Even plan proponents distrusted prospective population, cost and state subsidy estimates, and the Katahdin region’s plans might have been killed just by the lack of a solid state subsidy formula, Kautz said.
Still other towns chose to reject consolidation because cost estimates showed they would lose money if they supported it. Several towns numbers showed that tuitioning students to schools would have been less expensive than joining an RSU, Kautz said. Others saw taxes increasing significantly.
And now, because it’s the law, those reorganization committees will have to re-form, Kautz said.
But frustrated and tired by the process, many committee members say that when the committees re-form, they won’t join them.