Typo threatens school closure vote in Palmyra

Posted May 13, 2010, at 9:46 p.m.

PALMYRA, Maine — Whether a referendum vote for closing Palmyra Consolidated School will happen June 8 as scheduled was put into question Thursday because of a discovery that an erroneous figure appears on the ballot.

Regional School Unit 19 Superintendent William Braun said a typo in an April 29 letter from the Department of Education is to blame for the problem and will result in postponement of the referendum until late June. David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Department of Education, acknowledged that there was a typographical error in a communication to Braun, but that there may be a way to avoid postponing the vote.

“We’re going to reach out to them and sort out what’s going on and to see if there’s a way to go forward with the June 8 referendum,” Connerty-Marin said late Thursday afternoon.

In preparation to close the school as part of an effort to cut $1.5 million from the 2011 budget, Braun estimated that the district would save $448,292 by closing the Palmyra school. Braun said he sent that number and materials supporting it to the Maine Department of Education, which responded in the April 29 letter signed by former Education Commissioner Susan Gendron that the actual savings would be $488,292 — exactly $40,000 more than the district’s estimate.

“I was immediately suspicious,” said Braun during an interview Thursday. He said he called the department twice to question the validity of the higher number and was told the difference was because a different method was used by the department to compute savings in teachers’ salaries.

Connerty-Marin said he was not aware of anyone with the department who would offer that explanation, because if the state’s calculations differed from the district’s, a certification letter never would have been sent.

Braun said an official with the State Department of Education, in response to a query this week from Rep. Dean Cray, R-Palmyra, notified him Thursday that the higher number was a typographical error. Braun withdrew the ballots from the Palmyra town office Thursday and submitted new paperwork to the town, restarting a process that involves a 10-day comment period and a public hearing followed by another certification from the Department of Education. The timeline for those requirements make a June 8 vote impossible, Braun said. The cost of printing new ballots will be approximately $150, he said.

Cray said he favors a delay of the vote so there’s time to make sure Palmyra residents know what they’re voting on. If they vote to keep the school open, the town would be liable for the amount certified by the state on top of its obligations to support the regular RSU 19 budget.

Cray said earlier in the process, a third number, approximately $429,000, was floated before being changed to $448,292. The erroneous third number — $488,292 — has only complicated the situation, he said.

“We need to know what it’s going to cost,” said Cray, who said he has requested an itemized list of the savings. “We’ve had three figures, and time’s creeping up on us fast.”

Braun said a public hearing on the school closure scheduled for Tuesday at Nokomis Regional High School has been canceled. Meanwhile, the Palmyra Board of Selectmen has scheduled an emergency meeting for 6:30 p.m. Monday at the town office to discuss the issue.

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