Town seeks to leave school district, pay tuition instead to save money

Posted Nov. 24, 2011, at 9:20 p.m.

PORTAGE LAKE, Maine — While owning lakeshore property may be nice, it comes at a price. That’s what residents in Portage Lake are finding out when it comes to educating their children.

According to Town Manager Hollie Umphrey, the town’s school budget has more than doubled in recent years.

“In four years, Portage Lake has seen its school budget jump from an average of $356,000 to $694,000,” said Umphrey. “We’re paying $694,000 to educate 35 students.

“That equates to almost $20,000 per student, and the state average for towns our size is approximately $8,600,” she said. “We’re a small village, and we have a predominant population of retirees which makes it really tough.”

SAD 32 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson said that because of the school funding formula which places a heavy dependence on valuation, Portage Lake has “a very high value for its community … for one reason only, the lake.”

SAD 32 serves the communities of Portage Lake, Ashland, Garfield Plantation, Masardis and Oxbow Plantation.

“When you put Portage’s valuation in with the other four towns that comprise SAD 32, they have a proportionately much higher value, which means they will pay a proportionately much higher share of the cost,” he said. “Because the value of the property in Portage has been spiking up 20-plus percent per year, it created a situation where residents were upset, and I don’t blame them.”

Following a meeting in June, the idea of Portage Lake withdrawing from SAD 32 was born.

“Normally you’d never suggest that, but in this particular case, and after crunching the numbers and having them verified by the Maine Department of Education,” said Johnson, “they agreed with us that it would be worth their while to withdraw, but tuition their kids to SAD 32, which would save them a significant amount of money.”

“The kids would be tuitioned to SAD 32 with a contract that could save the town anywhere from $100,000 to $180,000 per year, so there shouldn’t be any impact on the children or their education. While the tuition cost would be paid through residents’ property taxes, as well as state funding, the students wouldn’t see any difference in their education,” Umphrey said. “Their education is of the utmost importance, and we want to make sure that still continues. The only thing different would be the town’s portion of the school budget.”

The town has since created the Portage Lake Education Committee to further explore the withdrawal option.

The committee consists of co-chairs Barbara Pitcairn and David Pierce as well as Jen Curran, Tammy Curran, Missy Boutot, Ginger Nelson and Dave Farnum.

Johnson said the committee has retained his services to help “guide them through the process.”

“I’ll be facilitating the process for both parties with a joint attorney (Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon of Portland),” he said. “We’re going to guide them through this and represent both parties equally.”

A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1 at the Town Hall. Johnson, legal representation and officials with the Maine Department of Education will be on hand to formally present the issue to the community.

“We’re expecting a large turnout,” said Umphrey. “It’s a perfect opportunity for people to ask questions, and to find out how we proceed with the withdrawal process — if this goes through — and how it will impact the town of Portage.”

Residents will vote on the withdrawal plan 2-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5, at the Town Hall.

“It will be the voters’ call … do we withdraw from SAD 32 or do we continue paying what we’ve been paying,” Umphrey said. “The atmosphere of the community — at this point — is that people are intrigued and are very interested in the proposal. They’re having a hard time with the amount of money that we have to pay for the school given the amount of students that we have enrolled there. They have questions that they want answered, which they’ll get at the public hearing.”

Johnson said should the referendum pass — and following the approval of the education commissioner — Portage would no longer have representation on the SAD 32 board of directors.

“If this all plays out the way we’re hoping it does,” he said, “they’ll have their own school board in place by the spring, create their own budget, and have everything in place by the start of the 2011-12 school year.”

Umphrey said the plan to withdraw is an “economical decision.”

“There’s no ill will from the town or the committee toward the school district,” she said. “In fact, this is very amicable by all parties. They realize that this is an extreme burden on the town, and before we get to a place where we just aren’t able to pay, we need to take a look at this. It’s really difficult for us to move forward with that type of a price tag. We have to go back and find an economical way to do this, and I really do believe that everybody is working — on both sides — to achieve this goal.”

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