Orono group tries to withdraw from school district, becoming third town to do so

Posted Feb. 06, 2012, at 6:35 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 07, 2012, at 7:22 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — Pockets of residents in each RSU 26 community want out of the school district, citing the loss of local control over education.

A citizens committee in Orono followed groups in Veazie and Glenburn by submitting language for a petition that would bring a bid for withdrawal before voters.

“The loss of local control, for us, is a serious issue,” said Orono resident Daniel LaPointe.

LaPointe submitted the petition’s wording to the town clerk last week and is awaiting approval from the town to go ahead and collect signatures.

LaPointe and a committee of about eight other residents, including some former town councilors, need to gather 330 signatures — or 10 percent of the town’s voters in the last gubernatorial election that state statute requires before the question goes to ballot.

In the face of a $2 million budget shortfall, the school district is considering cuts in each town ranging from eliminating sports programs to combining principal positions.

LaPointe argued that individual schools have lost control over the tools they have to educate their students and that the school district hierarchy was “dictatorial.”

“The parents of the children in this school system need to have autonomy,” LaPointe said Monday.

Meanwhile, the petition in Veazie is being circulated in an attempt to come up with 88 signatures, according to the town clerk.

In Glenburn, the petition has had to be rewritten twice in order to match the language recommended in state statute, according to John Higgins, the school board member who is backing a Glenburn committee’s effort to withdraw.

Higgins said Monday that his group has about 270 signatures to submit to the Glenburn Town Council during a meeting Thursday night, which the town then will have to validate. They need just 189 signatures to put the withdrawal issue before voters.

Higgins argued that the payoffs that were supposed to come from being part of a larger school district haven’t appeared and that Glenburn could do better — and have more control — on its own.

“There were supposed to be benefits and savings,” Higgins said, “but the savings haven’t come about and it doesn’t look like they will come about.”

He said the withdrawal committee might consider a future partnership with Veazie to cut costs if the panel’s efforts succeed.

At most, two of the three communities could pull out of the school district, according to Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

“You can withdraw from an RSU,” Connerty-Marin said, “but you cannot dissolve an RSU.”

While it’s still very early in the process for Glenburn, Veazie and Orono, Connerty-Marin said that if two towns were successful in their bid to withdraw before the third completed the process, the third would have to maintain the school district on its own because state statute doesn’t allow for the elimination of districts.

But that issue isn’t likely to come into play because, far more often than not, towns have found that the steps to withdrawal are difficult to ascend, according to Connerty-Marin. The process to pull out of a school district, by design, is not simple.

If the petitions are filed correctly, the issue will go before voters on a ballot. If the majority of votes favor withdrawal, a committee begins negotiations with the district at large and creates a plan on how to withdraw. The suggestions go before the residents and need a two-thirds majority vote. The state Education Department then has to approve that plan.

The earliest these steps could be completed is mid-2013, according to Connerty-Marin. However, if the process doesn’t hit any snags and a town beats every deadline, it’s possible — though unlikely — that the final withdrawal vote could take place on Nov. 6, 2012.

School district chairwoman Alison Mitchell of Orono said late last month that the board hasn’t officially discussed the withdrawal attempts and hasn’t taken a position on the issue. For now, she said, the board is focused on coming up with a budget that includes the nearly $2 million in cuts.

The school district board will meet for a budget workshop at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Glenburn school cafeteria.

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