Wiscasset forum weighs pros, cons of leaving consolidated school district

Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 10:01 p.m.

WISCASSET, Maine — Three years after consolidating school administrations with several towns to create RSU 12, some Wiscasset residents already are looking to opt out of the district.

With a question on the local Nov. 8 ballot looming which will ask residents whether they want to explore the possibility of withdrawal, some local leaders are scrambling to educate the populace about what that would mean. That was the intent of a forum Wednesday night that was organized by a group called the Wiscasset School Advisory Group for Educational Success, or SAGES.

Though the forum sought to provide information from both sides of the issue and answer critical questions about financial implications and local control, it quickly became clear that the answers to many questions are not yet known.

Even Selectman Ed Polewarczyk, who said he has been studying the issue for months and who stressed his comments as a member of Wednesday night’s forum were made as a resident, not a public official, said the facts are murky.

“I’m not sure I fully understand what the consequences are,” he said. “We need to go through the details.”

Though it is unclear which way the vote will go, what is clear is that the town’s school system has been in turmoil, especially in the years since the state underwent a process to consolidate school administrations. Wiscasset courted several potential partners before joining RSU 12 and since then residents have voted against the school budget several times. RSU 12 serves Wiscasset, Alna, Westport Island, Chelsea, Somerville, Palermo, Windsor and Whitefield.

Approximately 60 people turned out for Wednesday’s forum to hear the panelists’ opinions on the pros and cons of the town breaking away.

Polewarczyk led the charge in favor of withdrawal, framing most of his comments around doubts about whether being part of the school unit has saved the town money, even though RSU 12 Superintendent Greg Potter said Wiscasset would pay an additional $2 million to $3 million per year by withdrawing.

“I have trouble accepting the fact that the RSU has saved us that much money,” said Polewarczyk.

Jerry Nault, who is chairman of RSU 12’s finance committee, agreed with Polewarczyk that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact financial benefits enjoyed by Wiscasset but said the savings have been significant because of shared costs in areas such as administration, transportation, support services and special education.

“I’m not sure we’ve hit $2 million, but we’ve hit a very significant amount of money,” he said, adding that “we’re always looking for more [savings].”

The other prevalent issue tossed around Wednesday was local control, including over the budget and what Wiscasset High School’s mascot is. The district board voted earlier this year to eliminate the name “Redskins,” which caused a local uproar that led to the board overturning its own decision.

Potter and Nault suggested that despite those issues, Wiscasset voters should give the 3-year-old arrangement more time to develop before making a decision. One reason for that, they said, is the RSU board is developing a new funding formula that likely would result in Wiscasset taxpayers paying as much as 3 percent less. The RSU board is scheduled to address the finance committee’s recommendation on that project during its November meeting.

Furthermore, said Potter, the controversy between some Wiscasset residents and the rest of the district already is causing problems.

“Withdrawal or even talk of such is hurting our efforts to attract students,” he said, adding that it also has affected recent hiring because candidates are worried about job security with the district’s future uncertain. “There is pall sitting over us. The town has to decide what it wants to do.”

Richard DeVries, an RSU 12 board member from Westport Island, said special education costs would hit Wiscasset hard if they were not shared with the other district towns. He said he fears that if Wiscasset votes to study the consequences of withdrawing from the district on Nov. 8, it could cause irreparable damage in relationships between towns within the district.

“There would be lots of hard feelings that don’t have to happen,” he said.

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