School merger fight fails 2nd time

Posted April 23, 2009, at 7:13 p.m.

ETNA, Maine — A group of petitioners who last fall were unable to block Etna and Dixmont’s consolidation with SAD 48 are at it again. This time, too, it appears their efforts have failed and they will remain merged into Regional School Unit 19.

Janet Winchester, who organized both the fall and spring efforts, said petitions have been presented to the Etna and Dixmont boards of selectmen, asking for special town meetings to vote on backing out of the consolidation with SAD 48.

Etna selectmen have tabled the issue pending more study, while Dixmont selectmen rejected it outright.

“There’s no back door,” RSU 19 Superintendent William Braun said this week. “SAD 38 had eight days after the final vote last November to petition to overturn the vote. They did not do that. The vote stands.”

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state Department of Education, and Michael Starn of the Maine Municipal Association agreed.

“The RSU state law got rid of the SAD withdrawal process,” Starn said. “There is no mechanism currently available to withdraw.” He said a state legislator would have to introduce a special bill, specific to the SAD 38 district, to reconsider the consolidation vote.

Connerty-Marin said, “There is no provision in law to withdraw from an RSU.”

Winchester acknowledged Thursday that the effort may be purely symbolic and without any power. “But it makes a big statement,” she said.

She said a petition with 47 signatures was given to Etna selectmen and another with 55 signatures was presented to the Dixmont board. “We certainly could have surpassed those numbers,” she said, but added that the petitions were required to contain 10 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election.

Winchester said two issues are driving the dissatisfaction in Etna and Dixmont: school choice and the loss of the community school.

For the past 10 years, SAD 38 students used a tuition waiver to choose the high school they preferred. Winchester said that some years that amounted to 25 percent of the eighth-grade class but averaged about three to 10 students. The students could choose Nokomis Regional High School in SAD 48, John Bapst Memorial and Bangor high schools in Bangor, Hermon High School or Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield.

With the exception of families who have more than one sibling in high school, school choice was eliminated with the consolidation.

Winchester said she believes the merger would have been voted down if the district had voted in January 2009 rather than November 2008. “There would have been a different outcome,” Winchester said. “The presidential election changed the focus of that referendum.

“I think a lot of people also voted in fear of a penalty. That never should have been held over our heads. How can you call that democratic?”

Winchester said that under the town meeting form of government, citizen petitions and votes should be the final word. “We should be able to petition for anything,” she said. “We should be able to stand up and say what is not right for our kids.”

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