Some towns experiencing consolidation regret

Posted April 29, 2009, at 6:35 p.m.

STEUBEN, Maine — Towns that no longer want to be part of the regional school unit they voted to join are finding themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

In recent weeks, residents in several Maine towns have broached the idea of pulling out of the Regional School Unit they voted to join. They’re stuck, however, because the school reorganization law has no provision for withdrawing from an RSU.

Residents in Etna and Dixmont have petitioned their town leaders to call a special town meeting to vote on withdrawing from RSU 19, the unit the towns formed last fall with SAD 48. Etna selectmen tabled the petition; selectmen in Dixmont rejected the petition.

In Pownal, residents reportedly upset over increased costs under the RSU are talking about getting out of RSU 5. They were scheduled to meet with Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

Earlier this month, voters at a special town meeting in Steuben voted to withdraw from RSU 24, the 12-town district they voted by a slim margin to join last year.

Town officials, aware that the vote may be a “paper tiger,” say the vote makes a statement to others who oppose the state’s school reorganization law. The selectmen have scheduled a meeting for June 4 to discuss their next steps.

Department of Education officials and others say the vote is merely symbolic.

“There is no provision in the law that would allow them to withdraw,” Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Monday.

Connerty-Marin said that despite efforts such as the Steuben vote, the 24 RSUs in the state are moving ahead with reorganization successfully, including RSU 24.

The vote will not have any impact on that process, according to Bill Webster, superintendent of schools for the RSU 24 and for Union 96, of which Steuben is a member.

“There are only two ways the town could potentially withdraw,” he said. “They could go to the Legislature to get the law changed, or they could vote in favor of repeal.”

Steuben’s situation becomes a little more complicated because its schools were part of the Flanders Bay Community School District. According to Webster, although the town voted in November with a 45-41 vote to join the RSU, its vote was tallied with the results from the other towns in the CSD. It was the combined vote of all the CSD towns that determined that the district would join the RSU. Only the town of Otis voted against the proposal and did not join.

If the consolidation law is repealed, the old law would apply and Steuben still would be a member of the CSD, Webster said. Under the previous state law, there was a process for withdrawing from that type of district, he said. The process is complex and would take some time to work through the required steps.

“It wouldn’t happen right away,” he said.

The lack of a means to withdraw from an RSU has been troubling to a number of local school boards around the state and, in some cases was stated as a key factor in their opposition to the consolidation law and their reluctance to reorganize.

Connerty-Marin said he was unsure why the law did not include a provision for the towns to withdraw from an RSU.

“To my knowledge, it was not an issue that was debated and rejected,” he said.

It may have been an issue that no one thought about, he said, noting that the original consolidation proposal from Gov. John Baldacci did not provide for a local voice in the matter at all.

“There was no local decision about who to join with,” he said. “In the original proposal, there were 26 school systems statewide and that was set in law. There was no reason for allowing withdrawal.”

Legislators have proposed a number of changes to the reorganization law, including outright repeal and adding a withdrawal provision. According to Connerty-Marin, the Education Committee has tabled most of those proposals until the repeal issue has been decided. It appears the Legislature will send the repeal question to voters, probably in November.

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