Orland selectmen concerned about school vote mailing

Orland Consolidated School
Orland Consolidated School
Posted May 06, 2011, at 7:52 p.m.

ORLAND, Maine — Selectmen on Friday raised concerns about a recent mass mailing in town urging a “no” vote in the referendum on the planned closure of Orland Consolidated School.

Residents will make the final decision on whether to close the school during balloting on Monday at the town’s annual town meeting. The RSU 25 board voted earlier this year to close the school as part of a cost-cutting effort to offset a reduction of $890,000 in state subsidy for the coming year. Closing the school is expected to save $328,000.

Selectmen Ed Rankin and Ralph Gonzalez on Friday said they were concerned about what they characterized as inaccuracies included in the mailing.

“I hope that everybody in town votes on this,” Rankin said. “But they ought to have the facts.”

The mailing targets mainly Orland’s participation in the regional school unit. Orland joined Bucksport, Verona Island and Prospect to form the school district in 2009.

“If you knew in May 2009 that we would be facing the closure of our school in May 2011, would you have voted to join the RSU?” the mailing asked. It raises the possibility of withdrawing from the RSU and notes that before consolidation, the school already had negotiated contracts for services with Bucksport that “worked well and achieved cost savings.”

“We should return to a relationship where we educate our children in Orland and have contracts for needed services with others through an Alternative Organizational Structure through the state law; keeping the school open would make this transition much easier.”

The mailing urges voters to vote “no” in order to keep the school open and work for the possibility of withdrawing from the RSU to form an AOS and “keep local control of our property tax dollars.”

The selectmen did not address the issue of withdrawing from the RSU, but did question some of the other statements included in the one-page mailing. A key inaccuracy, they said, is the claim in the mailing that property taxes will go up whether the school is closed or not.

“The biggest thing is that [they say] taxes will go up either way,” Rankin said. “That’s very misleading.”

Dave Burgess, one of the RSU board members from Orland, said that based on the latest budget figures, Orland’s share of the budget will go down. That is based on a $13.1 million budget, which is based on the school being closed, and which, he stressed, has not been approved yet. Tax collector Connie Brown added that  the town’s assessors have determined that if the school is closed, property taxes will go down.

Property taxes have been an important issue in the school closure. If voters choose to keep the school open, the town would become responsible for paying the full amount of the anticipated savings if the school had been closed. That assessment would come on top of the town’s share of the total RSU budget. The selectmen have said in previous meetings that a taxpayer with property valued at $100,000 would pay an additional $185 in property taxes.

“If we close it,” Rankin said, “taxes will go down. If we don’t they will go up.”

The mailing also charged that the complicated and unfair calculation of the savings had penalized Orland by tallying savings based on cuts in programs that already have been made. “The RSU gets double benefits on the backs of the Orland taxpayers and remaining students,” according to the mailing.

Selectmen noted that the issue had been raised at a recent public hearing on the school closing. At that time, Superintendent Jim Boothby said that while the initial calculation had been made on a previous year when there were more students and programs at the school, the state formula also prorated the savings based on the current enrollment. That reduced the initial calculated savings from about $511,000 to the current $328,000 figure.

The selectmen also disputed the statement that in the RSU, there is no real local control over tax dollars and no town meeting votes.

While the budget no longer is decided at the annual town meeting, Rankin said, the RSU does hold a public hearing and an open vote at the RSU town meeting where voters from all four towns in the district  have an equal vote on the RSU budget.

The vote on the school closing is a straight up and down vote. The referendum question asks voters, “Do you favor authorizing the school board of Regional School Unit No. 25 to close the Orland Consolidated School?”

The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at the town office.

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